Women Urged to Seek Expat Experience to Develop Leadership

By Roy Maurer Dec 19, 2014
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Caroline Kersten (left) and Sapna Welsh, partners at Leverage HR.


Global HR consultants Caroline Kersten and Sapna Welsh enthusiastically encourage women to take on international expatriate assignments in order to develop as future leaders. Expatriate experience is no longer a luxury, but a “must have,” for women—and men, for that matter—to develop their careers.

The authors of Worldly Women—The New Leadership Profile (iUniverse, 2013) argue that more female expatriates is the solution to not only the global workforce shortage but the dearth in leadership roles for women.

Kersten and Welsh are partners at Leverage HR, a consultancy that provides professional career coaching and skills building. They are frequently asked to speak on the topic of women in leadership around the world. Kersten and Welsh spoke with SHRM Online about the need for more women in global leadership roles, what it takes to be a successful female expatriate and the challenges women face working overseas.

SHRM Online: You say that the demand for women in global leadership roles is increasing. Why is that?

Welsh: The demand for women in leadership is on the rise due to two primary reasons. First are the acknowledged benefits of mixed-gender leadership teams. There is mounting evidence that demonstrates that mixed-gender leadership improves profitability, decreases financial risk, improves social responsibility and offers role models to emerging female talent.

Second is the imminent leadership shortage. Despite the fact that organizations in the U.S. alone spend an estimated $12 billion per year on leadership development programs, data show that 60 percent of companies are facing a leadership talent shortage that is impeding their performance, and another 30 percent expect a leadership shortage to negatively impact their performance in the near future. It is clear that what organizations are currently doing to grow and develop future leaders is lagging.

Remaining competitive in an international arena requires organizations to have leaders who can get results in different cultural settings and adapt to local markets. International experience is a must have at senior levels. Hence the growing importance and number of international assignments. Organizations have an opportunity to meet the growing demand for leaders and at the same time reap the benefits that female leaders bring to the table, by effectively transitioning their female talent into expatriate roles.

SHRM Online: In which regions of the world is this happening?

Kersten: In general, there is a dire need for women expatriates in any region where organizations send their employees on international assignments, as there is a drought of female leaders and female expatriates. The regions where global organizations are picking up business and increasing their presence are where the demand for women in global roles is rising. North America is already a top region and continues to grow in importance. Europe keeps a stable position and in Asia-Pacific, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Japan are already well established countries of destination. Eyes are on Asia-Pacific as it continues to gain importance, with India, Korea and Indonesia being added to the list of emerging economies. In Latin America, Brazil and Mexico have a top position already and Chile now joins the ranks. These are the regions where the biggest increase in international assignments can be expected.

It is important to point out that, contrary to what is often believed, there are no regions where female expatriates cannot be sent to because they would be less effective or less accepted than men. Research has demonstrated that women assigned to traditionally patriarchal regions are successful and often experience less difficulty than when dealing with their home-country male peers. In the same sense, a potential increased risk of sexual harassment can be avoided if one is well prepared and knows how to avoid such situations. Knowing this, organizations can confidently assign women to roles across the globe.

SHRM Online: What are characteristics successful female expatriates share?

Kersten: It is generally understood that global leadership differs significantly from domestic leadership and that, as a result, expatriates need to be equipped with competencies that will help them succeed in an international environment. Commonly accepted global leadership competencies, for both male and female global leaders include cultural awareness, open-mindedness, and flexibility. However, during the research for our book, we found that there are four global leadership competencies that are shared among female expatriate leaders. They are:

  • Self-awareness. Know your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, which are all based on your values, and use this knowledge to make critical decisions.
  • Conscious imbalance. Tip the scales toward what gives you energy and fulfillment with the realization that the scales will need to be rebalanced on a regular basis.
  • Operating outside your comfort zone. Embrace challenges coming from new experiences by tolerating ambiguity and remaining calm.
  • Active career management. Know what you want from your career and actively work on achieving it.

Although these competencies are pertinent to male expatriates too, we found that they are more pronounced for female expatriates due to barriers that women face in seeking expat roles and challenges that are unique to professional women expats once they have moved abroad. Developing and reinforcing these four competencies will give female expatriates an edge to success in their expatriate assignment.

SHRM Online: What are some of those barriers and challenges?

Kersten: There are a few notable barriers to women getting expat roles. First off, women must work harder and perform better than men. Data relative to both the glass ceiling and glass border demonstrate that in most countries of the world, women still face biases and prejudices that men do not have to face. Even when women prove themselves, men get expatriated more often and earlier in their careers. In addition, organizations falsely assume that women are not interested in international assignments. Management often simply assumes that men are interested in expatriate assignments, whereas women have to ask to be considered for an international job. However, research has shown that men and women are equally interested in international assignments and women are willing to take considerable risks in order to secure these assignments. Organizations also falsely assume that women won’t be accepted in the host country. This is an excuse that is typically used by male managers, although it has little basis in fact. The truth is, even women assigned to traditionally patriarchal regions have managed to succeed. The women we interviewed for our book shared that the unique position that female expatriates enjoy in a host country can even work to their advantage.

Welsh: After moving to the host country, the major challenge women encounter is what we call “everything and then some.” Gender diversity in expatriate management is limited due to two primary reasons. The first is what is called the “double burden” syndrome, where women are responsible for work and the majority of the home responsibilities. The second barrier is the “anytime, anywhere” performance model, which calls for top managers to make themselves available at all times. The interrelationship between these two challenges is obvious. To further compound this problem, employees on international assignments work on average 13.4 hours per week more than they work at their home location, thus making it even more challenging for women.

SHRM Online: What are some strategies female expatriates should follow to achieve success on assignment?

Welsh: Making a positive first impression as an expatriate is crucial. You have 30 days to make a lasting impression. Expatriating involves challenging opportunities to build collaboration across cultural boundaries to drive results. At the same time, you are in unfamiliar territory with a new role, team and country.

Two powerful strategies for expatriate women to create a positive first impression and achieve their career goals are effective communication and mastering the four global leadership competencies [mentioned above]. Effective communication encompasses the way you present yourself, and will be the basis upon which new colleagues will develop an opinion about you.Communicating effectively in an international environment requires a mastery of a range of skills, including speaking, presenting, writing and listening. In addition, you need to “read” the unspoken in various settings, ranging from one-on-one encounters to presentations before large audiences.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

SHRM Online Global HR page

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