Employment Basics

Becoming a career woman on international assignment

Working abroad is beneficial to anyone’s career path, but there are unique challenges facing the career woman. How can women improve their prospects of finding work abroad and what are the long-term benefits?

Career woman

By Natasha Gunn

Updated 19-1-2024

Women need air miles to improve their international career prospects, but the first challenge many ambitious women face is getting an assignment in the first place. What are the issues at hand and how can a career woman address them while working abroad?

Shelley Wheeler, who works for a multinational energy company, put herself forward for an expatriate role for several years before she finally got a posting. “I think it was difficult for people to hear my request,” Wheeler says. “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’re in. They assume they are either too dangerous or difficult,” she says.

Now from her base in Dubai, Wheeler focuses on doing business in Kazakhstan. After five months, she hasn’t met problems due to being a young woman in a male-dominated industry and culture. Wheeler explains that when her company is dealing with local business contacts it is not usual that anybody goes alone. “Because I am the only woman on the team, inevitably it’s a male colleague who goes with me,” she says.


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Handling cultural barriers

So, how would Wheeler deal with men who found her gender to be an issue on the business floor? “I think it is always a matter of context,” she says. “If I’m the decision-maker in the room and the men I’m doing business with constantly address a male colleague, then, if it’s necessary for the successful outcome of that meeting, I slowly make the other side aware that I’m the person they need to refer to,” Wheeler explains.

Intercultural trainer Dean Foster observes that, depending upon the degree to which a culture experiences globalization, “foreign businesswomen are seen firstly as business people, secondly as representatives of their culture, and thirdly as women.” According to Foster, values or belief systems haven’t changed. “In the global business environment, familiarity breeds, in addition to contempt, a set of behaviors that at least acknowledges differences,” he says.

Woman presenting at a meeting

London-based Rosalyn Rahme (45) has worked for 20 years in executive research. She’s a board member of four companies and has extensive international top-level business experience. Rahme says that she knows from first-hand experience that there are cultural barriers to doing business in the EMEA region; that’s especially the case in the oil, gas, and automotive industries. “They will not do business with a career woman in the way they would with a man,” says Rahme.

Especially in the Middle East, “boys have to be boys and girls to be girls,” says Rahme. “You’ve got to play along with it. If you’re able return the banter of these men but still be respectful, you get their respect,” she says. She notes that women need to be “very mature” in their behavior to carry this off.

But cultural barriers and companies’ attitudes alone don’t explain why, on average, only 12–16% of international assignees are women.

Family ties as a career woman

Rosalyn Rahme describes a recent HR position which she was charged to fill as requiring regular travel to Dubai and various markets across Africa. “My client pointed out that it would be very unlikely that a woman will be attracted to this role. They said that because of the destinations as well as the amount of travel involved,” says Rahme.

S Padmanabahn, executive vice president and global head of HR for Tata Consultancy Services in Bangalore, admits that the women within the company aren’t quite as mobile as men; this is changing, however. “It’s 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,” he says in a recent article in Mobility magazine. To help balance career and family needs, Tata Consultancy Services is increasingly sending women on short-term assignments, says Padmanabahn.

Traces of the past

Christopher Clarke, president and chief executive of Boydon Global Executive Search, agrees that it’s more difficult for a career woman to take the expat route than for men. The paradox is that women have the qualities companies need to succeed as an expat in business today. The basis of his argument hinges on evolutionary psychology, an increasingly powerful field within psychology today. It’s essentially the study of how our minds evolve and the traces left by that evolution.

“If we look at hunter-gatherer societies, we haven’t evolved that much since,” says Clarke. He points out that society is evolving faster than we are. “Women are by necessity good at child-bearing and looking after the relationships in the family,” says Clarke, but they are also skilled at trading. “In developing societies, women do the trading at the markets — a strong commercial skill has evolved,” he says. In ancient societies, “the men were out hunting and banding together and cooperating to make sure they led the group and to keep out outsiders,” says Clarke. “You still see this kind of male bonding in boardrooms today,” he says.

“Now, we’re moving into a period where couples have to care for a wider range of things. Companies need a better understanding of relationships and wider management through teams rather than through dominant male hierarchies,” says Clarke. “Women care about relationships a lot more than men do. This is what makes them better at management; they’re better at recognizing emotions, voracity, and other people’s needs,” says Clarke. He believes, on average, this makes women better at working in teams.

But, on the other hand, “it is generally more difficult for a female to sever the relationships she’s established and take off for another country,” says Clarke.

The trailing male

Another issue is when the accompanying spouse is a man. “On average, the male is the person in the highest position in society; it gets much more difficult to get the guy to follow the career woman as the trailing spouse,” says Clarke. In many countries, it’s more difficult for the expat career woman “because they may have to accommodate their males’ egos. In male-dominated societies, the trailing male spouse does not want to feel inadequate,” he says.

Some couples still manage to take this role reversal in their stride. Shelley Wheeler moved to Dubai with her husband at a stage when both their careers were going well. Both Wheeler and her partner, who works in the IT sector, were confident that he could find work. “Dubai is a good location for IT; we thought this could be a good opportunity for us as a couple,” says Wheeler, whose partner hasn’t secured a firm offer yet. “I really respect that he’s willing to take this risk for the benefit of both of our careers. I’m not necessarily looking forward to it being my turn,” she says.

Cutting the ropes

What are companies doing to help get the career woman out on an international career path? Recruitment specialist Rosalyn Rahme feels companies that encourage women are still far too few. Rahme cites Shell as an exception. “They have a fantastic matriarchic influence down through the company,” she says.

Women in the boardroom

Deloitte is another large company that actively encourages the development of women’s careers. Hélène Ratte, EMEA HR Partner for Deloitte, who initiated Deloitte’s women in the workforce program, underlines that when selecting an employee for a posting, “we find the person qualified to fit the clients’ needs and then HR ensures that qualified women are part of those short-listed for the assignment.”

Ratte is aware that when she sends someone to the Middle East, they have to be able to cope with the cultural complexity. When she feels a female candidate is suitable for the job, Ratte builds up the case to make sure the candidate is accepted. The case could go along the lines of, “I have a female candidate. She’s been exposed to the Arab world, is of Arab descent, and succeeds in tough situations,” says Ratte, who will also offer solid examples of the candidate’s suitability for the role.

Paving the way for younger women

Ratte notes that the number of women in the younger generation is much greater than the 50+ generation. “You need to bring these women up,” she says, explaining that having successful female role models as board members helps bring about change. “It helps women to go on assignment for their career paths like anyone else,” says Ratte, who, as a successful career woman in her early fifties, is a role model herself.

Shelley Wheeler feels that women who want to go on assignment can do a lot to help themselves. She advises identifying the type of skills needed for the job they want and then going for it. “I started learning Russian, as this was specific to the role in Kazakhstan. It’s a matter of demonstrating that you really want the job,” says Shelley, who recommends that women follow the expat route if they can.

“I love it,” she says. “You get so much learning from a change in the cultural environment. It is a great way of developing as well as being essential for my career in the energy business.”