Women expats and family strains

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The number of women expats is rising, but while things at work may go smoothly for them, issues outside the office often present stumbling blocks. Eileen Gunn, of CareerJournalEurope.com, reports.

The challenge of being an expatriate and working mother became real to Philippa Reid in a supermarket in Hungary.

The British executive had packed up her actor husband and three children in 1994 so they could join her on a three-year stint building Accenture's then-fledgling Central European consulting practice.

 In a country where people still shop on a day-to-day basis, supermarkets don't bother to offer shopping carts.

So, buying her usual week's worth of groceries, Reid wound up toting nine hand baskets to the cash register.

"I thought the check-out clerk was going to have heart failure," she recalls.

But the big surprise still lay ahead. Unable to find Weetabix, her children's favourite breakfast food, she bought a box of muesli — usually a reliable fallback — only to discover back at home that the cereal was chock-full of Hungary's famous hot peppers.

Luckily, work went far more smoothly at Accenture.

"There were familiar standards and ways of doing things," Reid recalls.

The family settled in well enough for her to extend her tour to seven years and build the region's communications and high-tech practice from a crew of six to a staff of 265.

And she became the first managing director for a country within Accenture.

More support needed

Women have long been overlooked for foreign assignments despite their growing ranks in middle and upper management, but lately the number of female expatriates has been on the rise.

In 2001, 16 percent of the US's expats were women, according to an annual survey co-sponsored by GMAC Global Relocation Services in New Jersey. Not a large number, but it grew by three percentage points between 1993 and 2000, and that much again over the next year alone.

Reid's experience in Hungary, surprisingly smooth at work and bumpier on the "life" side of the equation, is often the case for women executives who head overseas with a family.

 Companies that want executives of both sexes to seek out international experiences — Accenture, Bayer AG and AstraZeneca PLC are good examples — try to make sure overseas assignments are worthwhile career investments. So they set clear goals for the assignments, arrange for managers to keep overseas employees in touch with related business back home, discuss in advance how the overseas work contributes to long-term goals and look out for good return assignments.

But companies may still come up short when it comes to providing the extra social and family support that employees need overseas.

Women are more likely to "consider the implications of their decisions for the rest of the family and will agonise over it," notes Shelley Bird, a Canadian who spent 10 years in Asia and Europe for several different companies and who gave birth to a son in Singapore.

Indeed, New York research firm Catalyst recently found that 44 percent of women executives sent abroad hoped for employer support for their spouse and family, but only 3 percent received it. And 79 percent wanted a formal network for themselves but only 4 percent got such help.

The trailing spouse

For starters, few spouses are able to get complementary foreign assignments. And the question of "what will my spouse do instead of working?" looms particularly large for female expats.

"You have to ask, 'if we view me as the sole breadwinner for now, how do we make this good for you?' " says Bird, whose husband trailed her to Singapore, France and the US.

Some men welcome the opportunity to be a stay-at-home dad for a few years — though this still turns a lot of heads in most countries. Others return to school or do volunteer work. One woman's husband, on leave from a job in the hotel industry, is taking advantage of her Paris assignment to bone up on French food and wine.

Some women have found hiring a language tutor and making the extra effort to mingle with local people pay off. Learning the subtleties of local culture rounds out the family's travel experience and also makes women expats more effective at work.

Bird's first job abroad was in Hong Kong, where making Chinese friends gave her insight into the typical, urban lifestyle there.

In particular, she learned that entertaining at home is rarely done because apartments are tiny and often crowded with extended family.

"I picked up on the fact that people on my team liked to play mahjong together, but didn't really have any place to do it," she recalls.

"I offered to let them stay late in the office on Friday nights, and it was a big deal" for them.

Similarly, the insight gave her more understanding of issues such as working from home.

In the US, says Bird, "it's the ultimate perk. But in Asia, having a nice office to go to is important for appearances. The attitude would be, 'what kind of company makes you work from home?' "

Befriending fellow expatriates can be particularly helpful for families with older children and teenagers. Pam Craig, a US partner for global business operations at Accenture, had two teenage boys when she sought and received an assignment in Japan.

She quickly learned that "people overseas are highly networked and can really help you out" with questions about schools, neighbourhoods, doctors and even children's activities. "We had help finding a local soccer team," says Craig, which quickly gave them an activity they liked.

Where's home?

The biggest surprise for many women who venture abroad is how long it takes them and their families to readjust when they return home.

Bird explains: "The country you're leaving no longer feels responsible for you, your company underestimates the reverse culture shock and wants you to work right away, and a lot of things happen that you don't think about."

For example, two years after she and her husband left France, they were still sorting out mistakes they'd made on their exit paperwork and taxes.

Reid's family went through huge, but typical, adjustments when they returned to the UK.

For starters, her five-year-old son had been born in Hungary and had grown up speaking more Hungarian than English.

"When we came home it wasn't home for him," she recalls.

And her daughter, now a teenager, was embarrassed because people in school remembered her and she didn't remember them."

Finally, she says, her husband had seen his acting career flourish in Hungary, where English speakers were in demand for plays, recordings and voiceovers.

He's acting less, given the competition for jobs in the UK, and spending more time managing the property of their new home, work he enjoys. He still returns to Hungary for acting jobs periodically.

Reid anticipated the upheaval, however, and asked for an assignment that would allow her to work parttime when she returned to the UK. As Bird points out, even if you're moving back home, "the place has changed and so have you."

November 2002

Eileen Gunn is a freelance writer in the US who specialises in management and financial issues.

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