HR Magazine, March 2001: Don't Fence Her In

By Kathryn Tyler Mar 1, 2001

Outdated assumptions about spouses, safety and culture may prompt managers to pass over women for international jobs.

Myths and misperceptions about what happens to women sent abroad—from the belief that they are crime targets to the assumption that some cultures won’t accept them in business—prompt managers to overlook women when filling international assignments, according to expatriates and experts.

Women are only 14 percent of the expatriates working for U.S. companies—but they make up nearly 50 percent of the middle management pool from which employers choose most candidates for international assignments.

So says the study, Why Are Women Left at Home: Are They Unwilling to Go on International Assignments? published last year by the International Personnel Association (IPA), a business group whose members include 60 of the top 100 businesses in the Fortune 500.

Even though women rejected foreign assignments no more often than men did, supervisors believed women weren’t interested or wouldn’t work out and were reluctant to recruit them, the IPA found.

“Most often employees, whether male or female, find out about assignments from their immediate supervisor,” says Linda K. Stroh, co-author of the IPA study and professor of human resources and industrial relations at Loyola University in Chicago. “If the supervisor thinks women are less willing [to go on international assignments], there lies the dilemma. It relates so much to the stereotypes we’re beginning to chip away at domestically.”

IPA “put to rest many of the myths in regards to female expatriates: That women don’t want international assignments; that the male spouse is the bigger breadwinner; that women were less inclined to disrupt their families,” says Raj Tatta, partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Florham Park, N.J. “Good people with the most honorable intentions made the wrong assumptions.”

The business group’s study got backup from a separate survey by the women’s advocacy group Catalyst, based in New York. Catalyst’s Passport to Opportunity, published last year, found that supervisors believe women are not as internationally mobile as men—even though 80 percent of the women expatriates surveyed had never rejected a new assignment, compared to 71 percent of the men.

Catalyst also found that while management assumed that men would be interested in expatriate assignments, women had to ask management to be considered for an international job.

Companies that ignore women when making international assignments are putting their business at risk, Tatta says. “This is the tightest labor market the world has ever seen. If you do not draw upon your women for your international assignments, you are hurting yourself.” Sending women on international assignments “is no longer a matter of good corporate citizenship … it’s a matter of the corporation’s survival.”

Safety Concerns

If women are willing to go on international assignments, why do supervisors and managers keep sending men while women stay home?

Expatriates and experts note that employers express two major—but usually unfounded—worries. Em-ployers fear that women posted abroad could become crime victims and they believe that some societies’ cultural prejudices against working women could hamper female expatriates’ effectiveness on the job.

Patti Bellinger, an American expatriate in London and vice president of global diversity and inclusion for BP Amoco, labels the crime concern a myth. “There are basic rules of the game when traveling that men and women have to follow,” she says.

Katie Koehler, vice president of HR for the Caribbean and Latin American region for Marriott International Inc., agrees. She accepted an assignment in Mexico City, which she says is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. “In Mexico … it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. If it’s a dangerous city, it’s dangerous for whomever.”

Expatriates add that in some cases, women working abroad may be safer than men because women are less likely to underestimate risks. “Women take more precautions. Men don’t feel as at risk,” says Bellinger.

Prejudices Against Working Women

Managers also may say that women might have difficulty being accepted in business because of prejudices against working women in the host countries.

Cultural prejudice against businesswomen can be subtle or pronounced. In some countries, Stroh says, workers may refuse to acknowledge women during meetings, question women’s decisions or make derogatory comments about a woman’s role in society. In some cultures, women may be forced to alter their attire and change their habits, such as going out in public only with their husbands because the local culture prohibits women from being seen with other men.

While such strictures can affect women, they do not necessarily prevent women from succeeding as expatriates, Stroh notes. “Even in the more harsh cultures, once they recognized the woman could do the job, once her competence had been demonstrated, it became less of a problem,” she says.

That was Koehler’s experience in Mexico. “In dealing with the men who run the unions, there was a noticeable shock that I was … to be treated as an equal,” she says. “At one breakfast meeting, immediately after graciously welcoming me, one union leader told a dirty, sexist joke in Spanish. I knew it was a test—one, whether I understood it, and two, how I would react.” She merely smiled politely to indicate that she understood the joke but didn’t think it was funny. After that incident, she notes, “he didn’t mess with me. There’s a lot of ‘sweetie’ stuff. You just have to work around it.”

Jill Walsleben, director of HR development for Watson Wyatt Worldwide, an international HR consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., spent two years working for Citibank in Zurich, Switzerland, where she found that attitudes varied depending on her co-workers’ positions.

“Among my leadership team, the female thing was not a problem,” she says. But she noticed a different attitude among other employees. “I did feel there was this underlying feeling of ‘Why are you pushing for this change? You should be home with your kids. You dragged your poor husband here?’”

Bellinger says that in male-dominated cultures like Saudi Arabia “it’s impossible to be as effective [as a man], but there aren’t many examples like that. We have women in other Middle Eastern countries who are doing well.” Generally, she says, employees in the host country tend to assume that if a company spends the money to send a woman on an international assignment, the woman must be highly competent.

Bellinger adds that an expatriate faces more prejudice as an American or as a corporate executive than as a female.

“The stereotypes weren’t gender-specific. They were about an American coming from corporate [offices],” says Lori Roland, who recently returned from a stint in London working as a program director for the Gillette Co. of Boston. “It’s important for an expatriate in a new culture to be open and not presume they know the business.”

What About the Spouse?

“People assume that … the husband’s job is more important,” Roland says. “That is the biggest fallacy that a company can fall into. You can miss some really good opportunities to develop talent by making that assumption.”

The spouses of married female expatriates are likelier to work than are the spouses of married male expatriates, according to Catalyst. When the group surveyed married expatriates, it found that 91 percent of married female expatriates are in dual-career marriages, while only 50 percent of married male expatriates are in dual-career marriages.

Host country immigration laws, language barriers and work limitations often make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for trailing spouses, male or female, to find suitable employment.

That’s what led Walsleben to terminate her assignment in Zurich. Walsleben, who moved there in 1995 with her husband and their two young children, says she found there was no day care available because most Swiss women quit working when they have children. Her husband, who had hoped to find work, tended the children. “My husband was the only dad in the parking lot at the international school, the only man in the village grocery store,” she says.

The family came home when her husband, who had been a project manager for an aerospace company in the United States, couldn’t find work in Zurich. “He said, ‘I’m too young to be retired. I’m going home and I hope you come, hon.’ I was left with torn emotions between doing what my husband needed and what I had committed to the business to do.”

Female expatriates also may have a tough time dealing with their spouses’ adjustment to a move abroad because male “trailing spouses” often find that corporate support and social arrangements assume that the spouse will be female.

“There isn’t a lot of community for my husband to be a part of,” Bellinger says, adding that most events for spouses are geared toward women. She notes that her company’s internal publication for trailing spouses is called Woman.

Don’t Make Assumptions

In advising employers on how to expand the number of women in expatriate assignments, Koehler and Roland say employers should not make assumptions about anyone’s interest or willingness to go, but should keep asking.

“HR departments need to be creative in recruiting more women,” says Koehler. “Sometimes all it takes is for the company to plant the seed. There may be a lot of women out there who would want to do it and be good at it, but they don’t consider it themselves.” Despite living abroad as a child, Koehler says she never considered an international assignment until an executive at Marriott presented her with the idea.

Roland urges supervisors to “ask and ask again,” even if a woman turns them down the first time. She notes that she rejected an international assignment before saying yes to a post in England. “Don’t assume because someone has turned an assignment down once, they are not willing and interested,” she says. “Sometimes timing is just not right, especially when they have a dual-income situation.”

Roland’s case also shows that employers shouldn’t assume that a woman’s personal life will make her turn down an assignment. Roland was nine months pregnant with her first child when she accepted the assignment in England. Her employer agreed to send her and her family overseas after she completed her maternity leave.

“From a personal point of view it was a busy time, but it was the logical next transition in my career,” she says.

Drawing Women to Expatriate Jobs

Experts and expatriates say companies can increase the number of women in expatriate positions if they try these tactics:

  • Create a system for identifying employees willing to take these assignments. Employers need to set up organized selection systems that “develop pools of potential candidates so that when there’s a position that becomes available, it isn’t a matter of random selection,” Stroh says.

    At Gillette, managers use the annual performance review as a time to ask employees about possible moves. “Having [the employee’s interest] in writing and in the database puts it into the formal process and hopefully gets rid of those assumptions before they even ask the employee,” says Roland.

    If your corporate culture leans more toward expecting employees to volunteer their interest in assignments, make that expectation clear, Bellinger says.

  • Use successful female expatriates to recruit others. “Let these people do recruiting, have seminars and talk about the pros and cons and how to make it successful,” advises Koehler. Tatta adds: “One successful assignment breeds more assignment requests.”

  • Be flexible about timing. The Catalyst study recommends giving employees a reasonable deadline for deciding whether to accept an assignment and being flexible about the starting date. For example, Roland’s employer held her assignment for three months while she was on maternity leave. Bellinger’s company delayed her departure until her children finished the school year in the United States.
  • Provide employment assistance for the trailing spouse. The Catalyst study showed that 60 percent of trailing spouses would like career assistance from the expatriate’s employer, but only 17 percent receive it. If local immigration laws prevent the spouse from working, offer alternatives, such as volunteer opportunities or tuition allowances for local universities.
  • Address social needs. Expatriates cite isolation as one of the most difficult obstacles to assimilation in the host country. The Catalyst study showed that only 52 percent of women felt included in the informal expatriate network or in socializing with local nationals, while 68 percent of men felt included in such networks and local socializing.

    Catalyst also found that 73 percent of trailing spouses would like the employer to provide a formal spouse network but only 11 percent had one.

    “It’s incredibly lonely,” says Koehler of her experiences as a single female expatriate. “I wanted to meet other people, but all of the [expatriate social] events were during the day. There was nothing for working women or trailing spouses.”

    Bellinger says she would have liked some opportunities for her children to meet other expatriate children because her family moved to England at the start of summer and had to wait until school began in the fall to meet other playmates.

  • Provide mentors. Expatriates benefit when they can discuss problems, both on and off the job, with someone who knows their host country. The Catalyst study showed that 72 percent of women expatriates would like a formal host-country mentor, but only 30 percent had one.

  • Plan for the employee’s return. “Companies need to think about repatriation,” advises Walsleben, who says she left her company 18 months after returning from abroad because she felt it did not plan adequately for her return. The only job available to her that took advantage of her new experience was in New York, but she lived in Virginia. The commute helped fuel her decision to leave.

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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