What's holding you back?

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Women taking up an international management function in the Netherlands should be aware they are part of a select minority. Despite years of talk of emancipation, women hold a very low percentage of such expat postings. This situation not only hinders the business success of their firms abroad but it also limits opportunities for women to succeed at home, writes Mary van der Boon.


Most multinational companies prefer that their senior management have abundant overseas experience. Excluded from that experience, women are also excluded from promotions and power later in their careers.

According to Queen’s University professor and gender management specialist, Dr Carol McKeen, international mobility of female professionals and managers across subsidiaries is often restricted because of women's (perceived or real) family attachment and the social norms which still regard men as the primary breadwinners.

Spousal issues for female expatriates may also be more complex, as they are more likely to have employed spouses who will need support in relocating.

Contrary to popular corporate myth, female managers often report the biggest barriers coming from within the corporation, rather than from situations actually encountered during foreign assignments.

An Australian survey has concluded that women's accomplishments are attributed to luck and external factors, including affirmative action, whereas men's are attributed to skill and ability.

The latter have higher worth in the labour market. In addition, theories of statistical discrimination hold that employers expect lower productivity returns for professional women than for equally-qualified men due to probability estimates of turnover, work commitment, and skills that encompass the population at large.


This thinking can lead to job assignments for women that limit their skill and knowledge gains, including those across borders. "We talk about the fact that women have to be "overripe" for promotion - they have to demonstrate they can do the next job before they get promoted to it, while men are promoted much earlier when they're hungry, not when (they're) ready." says Jennifer Allyn of Catalyst, a New York search group.

Dr. Nancy Adler has identified three key barriers to selection of women on international assignments:

  • the assumption that women simply do not want to be international managers because of work/family conflicts (particularly married women and working mothers)
  • the outright refusal of some companies to send women abroad, owing to fears about their competence or their physical safety
  • the belief that many foreigners are prejudiced against women expatriate managers.

Where senior management assumes that married women do not want international careers, it is unlikely that these organisations will invest in the development of their women managers and provide assignments with power and opportunity.

Research has indicated that because men hold most upper level management positions, they do most hiring, including sending individuals on overseas assignments, and they may not be willing to offer career advancement opportunities to women subordinates.

Workforce magazine has described an unfortunate reality: even though women comprise half the workforce in most countries, men are still the overwhelming choice when it comes to selecting candidates for overseas assignments.

When surveyed, respondents admitted that 71 percent of employees who are eligible for an expatriate assignment are male, and only one woman is offered an assignment for every 10 men offered. The discrimination persists despite the fact that women accept assignments at a greater rate than men do (90 percent of men versus 99 percent of women), and that they enjoy a higher assignment success rate.

Committed Human Resources (HR) professionals say that developing a global database and posting all expatriate positions the company is seeking to fill on company intranets sites (open to all applicants) will encourage women, minority and differently abled candidates to apply.

Development of an expatriate competency profile linked to global and transnational strategy will also help banish the spectre of patronage, cronyism, sexism and racism in expatriate selection and assessment procedures.

Today’s competitive global marketplace requires a working environment which visibly demonstrates a commitment to people, and enables these people to contribute to their full potential.

But women executives also have a part to play in changing entrenched attitudes.

For instance, women seeking international assignments might follow Harriet Rubin’s advice in her best-selling book for women leaders, The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women: "Women have avoided conflict for too long. They must wage war in their personal and professional lives to get what they want," maintains Rubin.

Her advice to women everywhere? "Ask for everything. Women think their needs will be perceived, that they are obvious. You'll never know what you can get if you don’t bother to ask".

International networks are essential to today’s women abroad. The tendency of women who made it to the top to pull the ladder up behind them has been replaced by a new generation of women eager to share the secrets of their success.

In the Netherlands organizations such as Women’s International Networking www.womensinternational.net) and Unie Vrouwelijke Ondernemers Nederland (Union of Women Entrepreneurs, www.uvon.nl) can help provide the necessary contacts.

Mary van der Boon is Managing Director of global tmc international, www.globaltmc.com and regularly contributes to Expatica HR http://www.expatica.com/hr.asp

15 May 2003

Subject: Female expat opportunities

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