Home Moving to Belgium Integration The woman expat plays catch-up at work, but what’s the catch?
Last update on August 14, 2019
Written by Natasha Gunn

It’s easier than ever to be an expat woman working abroad, but only 14% of all expatriates are women. What’s behind the astonishing expat gender gap?

Prior to becoming the editor of Expatica Belgium, I was editor of Expatica HR, a website providing news and information for human resources professionals managing an international workforce. Over the past six months, as the editor of Expatica HR, I have been approached by two magazines seeking views and information on the topic of the expat woman, and I’d like to share some of the points I discussed with you.

Certainly, the number of women being sent on assignment is increasing.

Increase in number of woman expats

Two major surveys report an increase in female expatriates; a recent global survey by Mercer Human Resources Consulting covering 104 multinational companies with nearly 17,000 male and female international assignees, found that companies in Asia-Pacific had 16 times more females on assignment in 2006 than they did in 2001, companies in North America have nearly four times as many, while those in Europe have more than twice as many.

Another survey, The 11th annual Global Relocation Trends Survey produced by GMAC Global Relocation Services and the National Trade Council, shows that a record 23% of international assignees last year [2005] were women, compared to 14% from the 2004 survey, which is the first time women have constituted more that 20% of the total expatriate workforce.

[Editor’s note: Ten years later, the situation hasn’t changed. Mercer reported in 2017, its most recent survey year, that women comprise just 14% of the expatriate workforce globally.]

Expatica - an expat woman at work. Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

This is surely an improvement, but 20% still isn’t much of the total expat workforce. So what is really at the root of matter?

S Padmanabahn, the Global head of HR of Tata Consultancy Services, which has a large international workforce, admits that the women within TCS “are not quite as mobile as men.” In an article in Mobility magazine he puts this down to “cultural attitudes toward the role of women in child-rearing and family life which play a role in this shortfall as women move through different life stages.” To help balance career and family needs, Padmanabahn says TCS is increasingly sending women on short-term assignments. In short, the expat woman is still being held back by traditional lifestyle expectations.

Difficulties of expatriate lifestyle

However, a lady I interviewed recently, Nathalie Nowak, who works for Global’Ease, a company that helps organisations to manage their assignees and formulate their international assignment programmes says that, based on her research, it is clear that women who start to lose job motivation while on short-term assignment are emotionally more vulnerable than men.

Nowak reveals: “One woman told me that despite being initially very enthusiastic about her nomadic lifestyle— her job required her travelling to either Spain or England every week — she progressively started to dislike her job when she decided she would like to start a family. As she was not married and did not talk much about her private life, no one in the company ever wondered why she resigned two years later.

“Repeated mobility is tiring and companies should develop programmes which take into account what is at stake in their employees’ lives, and which allows them  to ‘have a break’ to avoid burnout.” The expat woman may well have it harder than her male counterpart.

The challenge of returning home

Plus, during repatriation, a time notoriously difficult for expatriates, Linehan, the author of the book, “Senior Female International Managers: Why So Few?”, says women have a more difficult time on repatriation than men: “Among other professional challenges felt by the repatriating female manager is the fact that the glass ceiling they hit before they left the country is still firmly in place.” She also says that women, who typically are not as good as men at requesting what they really need from the higher powers won’t request for instance the time off they will likely need on repatriation.

“It is clear from the views expressed by the [female] managers with children that work-family conflicts are a major deterrent to female participation in international management,” says Linehan.

More on this subject: Tips for the expat woman

Another finding from the Mercer survey was that women expatriates are far less likely to be accompanied by a partner than male assignees.

Mercer reports that studies suggest partners of successful women also tend to have high-powered careers. When a woman is offered an international assignment, their partner may be less willing to make career concessions to accompany them. In effect this means that women are losing some valuable emotional support when on assignment.

Company policies are outdated

The same Mercer survey reports that “many companies’ policies are outdated and do not reflect the changing profile of their expatriates, so assignees’ requirements are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.” Plus although the companies surveyed generally did not have separate policies for female expatriates, the study found some differentiation in the treatment of male and female assignees. For example, 15% of companies said they would not send women to hardship locations such as those in the Middle East.

Last year I interviewed Shelley Wheeler, an expatriate in her early thirties, who works for a multinational energy company. She mentioned that within companies “decision-makers make ‘assumptions’ as to what they think the best sort of assignment for someone would be. When they move that framework over to women they tend to eliminate certain jobs because of the locations they are in and assume they are either too dangerous or difficult.

From her base in Dubai, Wheeler continues to do business in Kazakhstan and says that she hasn’t met any real problems due to being an expat woman in her early 30s in a traditionally male-dominated industry and culture.

Expatica - Expat woman jobs

It is encouraging to see that some companies are making an effort to increase the numbers of women in their international workforce. Deloitte for instance has an established ‘women in the workforce programme’ and I spoke with the woman behind this scheme, Hélène Ratte.

She told me that “when sending out a number of employees, we try to mirror the breakdown of the population of the ‘sending’ country or qualified population.”

She explains that “whereas in Western Europe you can easily live with a balance of 60 to 40 either way, in the Middle East there is no way you would function with 50 to 50. You might send a ratio of 15 to 85 or 30 to 70. You need to keep the balance right.”

Ratte says, “At the end of the day in our consulting-auditing-tax environment, our clients look to our people for their technical competence — their human competence and that can be a man or a woman.”

Intercultural trainer Dean Foster has observed that times are a changing albeit slowly, depending upon the degree to which a culture has been involved in the process of globalisation. “Foreign businesswomen are seen firstly as business people, secondly as representatives of their culture, and thirdly as women.”

Evolutionary psychology at work

Christopher Clarke, president and chief executive of Boydon global executive search, agrees that it is more difficult for women to take the expat route than for men. The basis of his argument hinges on evolutionary psychology, which is essentially the study of how our minds have evolved, and the traces left by that evolution.

Clarke believes,” Women care about relationships a lot more than men do, which makes them better at management because they are better at recognising emotions, voracity and other people’s needs,” says Clarke, which he believes, on average, makes women better at working in teams.

But there is a paradox: “It is generally more difficult for a female to sever the relationships she’s established and take off for another country,” he says.

Mirella Visser, who has 16 years of international management experience and is founder and CEO of the Centre for Inclusive Leadership believes that companies can bring about change through mentoring programmes, skills development and positive role models.

She says that when she was on expat assignment as Regional Director of ING in Asia she was frequently asked “What do you do all day?” It was assumed that her accompanying spouse was the working expat and she the expat wife, who due to her gender naturally wasn’t the working partner.

When the expat woman has an advantage

On a similar track to Clarke, Visser believes that companies could actually have an advantage through sending women expats to certain regions over men. She believes that “especially in Asia, women expats have the advantage of being highly regarded as professionals and are able to integrate into sometimes even larger business networks than their male counterparts.”

She also sees that through stimulating and actively supporting female expat careers, companies can fill the pool of talent for top management positions with a larger number of qualified individuals. “This increases the chance of appointing the right person for the right top job,” says Visser. “With more women becoming expats it can be expected that traditional assumptions and the related questions will gradually disappear.”

There are more opportunities than ever to be an expat woman, but many of the traditional disadvantages remain.