The expatriate woman: does she exist ?

While there is a lot of ‘drama’ in the expat world about the exact definition of an expat, based on this study, I’m referring to someone who is working abroad on an international assignment, role, or project for their company.  Right now, my husband is officially the “expatriate” (we’ve been sent to Chile from Australia on a contract with his company), and I often get labelled an “expat wife” (although I cringe at the term – I HATE that label – that’s another post).


To start off, I know that women expatriates exist. Duh. However, if you’re in the expatriate scene in any country you also must admit that they’re pretty scarce. I’m embarrassingly guilty of learning about a newly arrived family and quizzing “who does he work for?” only to to find out that it was “her” who brought the family abroad. Terrible assumption, but unfortunately statistically probable, as a newly-minted research report tells us.

An MBS colleague Victor Sojo, in partnership with PWC, have just released a study examining the world of expatriates. They collected data from over 6700 Australian expatriates – this data is pretty solid. I am not going to rehash all the research, but there are a few highlights that I’ll pick out that are interesting to note.

  • International experience is important for a leader’s career.  To further your career as a leader in a globally-oriented firm, it can be critical to get international experience. It makes sense that if you want to lead an international division/company, that you’d spend some time getting to know how things work abroad. This goes for both men and women. In this study 63% of women indicated that international experience was important to further their careers. A whopping 69% of women interviewed would like to work abroad for their firms, yet 75% of all expatriates are men. Hmmm. You do the math – it just doesn’t add up. Why you say?
  • Why don’t women get international assignments? From the company’s side, there are often assumptions (read: unconscious bias) made about women and their availability, suitability, and desire to work internationally.  In terms of who gets the expat position, it’s almost a ‘gut feel’ in many cases and often women aren’t even considered in the pool of available candidates.  The decision makers (sometimes HR, sometimes division or country heads, or those mystic unknown the ‘powers that be’ in firms – often male), as one put it, “just know” when a candidate is ready for an international role. Surveys show that it often comes down to “who you know” in the firm. Nearly 36% of those studied sought out and found their own role, with 18% finding those role through ‘informal networks’. And many HR leaders admitted that when a pressing international role came up, managers often selected someone they knew personally in their radar, who they deemed ‘similar’ to themselves.  Take heed if you want an international role: loiter around your boss’ office, study and take up one of his/her interests. Maybe even wear his/her cologne for added effect?
  • Why don’t (or can’t) women accept international assignments? There are many reasons that women feel they can’t accept international assignments, even if on offer. A lot of it comes down, again, to the way society is structured. Taking out the two biggest reasons for not accepting international assignments (1: it will negatively impact my family, and 2: my partner would never agree), I’ve pasted in the table that shows women’s main reported barriersWomen and expatriate assignments.  I would feel the same about some of these too, to be honest. Having lived in quite a few countries now, I believe it is tougher for women expatriates in many societies, because some of the in-grained antiquated (yet hopefully getting old fast) views of women in the workplace. Given all of these issues, its not a giant surprise to find out that nearly half of all women sent abroad are single (and under 40!), while 70% of men sent abroad are married (and mostly over 40!).
  • Some strategies for encouraging more women expats. The article also suggests many ways that companies can try to get women more expatriate experience. I’ll cover a few.  First, women are more likely to feel able to accept an assignment when they’re not in the middle of having children, so approach women for even short term projects or opportunities when they’re younger so they can clock the time abroad early.  Second, work with women early to identify potential suitable locations and get it on their development plans. For example, there are some locations (e.g., countries where women don’t have any rights) where women might not want to dive into an expatriate role. Third, find  some other women role models for them to talk to, to make it feel possible. Fourth, the hardest issue – tackle the ‘dual career’ issue. One study showed that 90% of expatriates womens’ happiness in their role was influenced by their spouse’s adjustment. Just as it’s tough for the ‘expat wife’ (ahem),  personally I think it’s even harder for the ‘expat husband’ to adjust. Kinda like the ‘stay at home dad’ challenge in any other country. These guys are awesome for supporting their wives careers and family to take on a new challenge/adventure, but it’s much more uncommon, and therefore really challenging to adjust and find support in foreign countries. 

Overall, I’m not a fan of blaming or judging any woman who chooses to not to take an overseas role in order to concentrate on her family, or one who does take the role to develop her career. We all do what we can to survive and (hopefully) be happy – and what works for our own family and personal situation.  But I do like considering how our cultures/societal norms influence these dynamics, and makes certain possibilities more probable. Right now in many  societies women still take on more family-oriented responsibilities, and men the more ‘bread-winning’ working roles (myself not excluded from that!). So of course it’s going to be tougher – and less common-  for a woman, with a working husband and young family, to take on a leadership role abroad in a country where she might find opposition just because of her gender.  I just hope that things even out so that it becomes more of a possibility or opportunity for those women who want it (69% of women interviewed!), and that they won’t be penalized for opting to stay home.  I’m so proud of my friends – you know who you are – who can and do manage to do it. You’re role models and trailblazers who are showing both your organizations and other women that it can be done. Would love to know what you think about this study!

Here is the link to the study, for those who want to check it out.

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Don’t put me in that box (Part 3): when you’re most likely to be ‘boxed’

As I mentioned in part 1& 2 (here), for part of my PhD research I interviewed senior women leaders in Australia (working in traditionally ‘male’ industries) surrounding how they think they’re see by their co-workers, and if/how they attempt to manage the perceptions of others (about them).

One of the biggest themes we ended up talking about surrounded key times in their careers when they really felt that their ‘identities’ were scrutinized by those around them. During these times, there seemed to be a bigger chance to feel ‘boxed’ or seen incorrectly by their colleagues, and they had to “renegotiate” their identities.

1. Pregnancy.  There’s nothing like growing rounder and rounder at work; when pregnant, your body is pretty much much out of your control. While you’re already dealing with not recognizing yourself, sometimes it feels like your coworkers also think that you are no longer “you”. You have morphed into a living, breathing, baby-machine who only wants to talk about her body and her baby, right?  Some women love it, some women love it less. Personally, when pregnant, I found it strange to walk into a meeting, have everyone look me up and down, and then have to answer (often several time a day): “is it a boy or a girl?”, “how do you feel about the baby?”, “do you have a name…”, and then have relative strangers tell you that your bump looks  “small/just-right/enormous”, or that you’ve “only gained weight on the belly!” (not in my case, ahem) etc.  The worst part (in my opinion) is when colleagues (particularly those you’re not even really associated with, or those that happen to be the pervy-guy-types) attempt to rub your belly. Like it’s not part of you.

I’m not saying that your co-workers mean you harm – they’re often kind people who genuinely care.  It’s just that now, whether you like it or not, there is a new identity (pregnant co-worker, future ‘mom’) that you’re going to have to accept as part of your professional identity, and find a way to incorporate into who you are. There’s no more hiding.  While each leader had their own take on being pregnant at work, here’s a quote that made me chuckle  from a senior woman leader:

“I  think that when a man who you are working with sees you’re getting fatter and fatter and more and more pregnant, they find it very difficult to disassociate you from their wife. Their perspective changes on you, it does.”

2. Being the new mom. Coming back from maternity leave is also a time where you’ll need to renegotiate the ‘new you’ with your co-workers, and yourself.  Even if you’re not the primary carer, or you have wicked-reliable daycare services, it’s a challenge to be exactly the same as you once were.  Every woman is different with respect to how much of her professional identity is now comprised of being a ‘mom’. And that’s OK because there are different standards of happiness and success depending what is important to you.

Sometimes you feel that you get put into the ‘mommy’ box, and you can even be passed up for opportunities or promotions because of your assumed status as a “new-mother-who-no-longer-cares-about-work” (right? um, no). On the other hand, in some offices it can feel like nobody actually does see or care that you’re a new mom with new responsibilities that you’re trying to balance.  Either way, being a first-time mom at work is one of those times where you’ll need to re-negotiate the ‘new you’ at the office.

When dealing with the change, from my interviews, I noticed there were many different – and successful – strategies of the new ‘working mom’. Just a few extremes for illustrative purposes (no, we all don’t fit into these boxes!):

  • The compartmentalizer. You keep your work identity and home identity separate, and you don’t see why the ‘new’ work you is not the same as the ‘pre-baby you’.  You barely even see yourself as a mother anymore when you step into the office.  If you’re one of this group, it’s really annoying to be tagged as the ‘new mom’ by others. One woman I interviewed stated: “When I’m at work, It doesn’t even occur to me that I have a son.”
  • The integrator. You try hard to (in one way or another) to integrate being a mom into your professional identity. It involves teaching your colleagues that you’re a ‘new and improved’ version of yourself.  You hope that others still know what you’re good at, recognize you for it, and respect that you’re not going to be able to be the work-android you once were.
  • The happy Mommy. While work is important, family is more important at the moment; ‘mom’ forms a really big part of who you are. You proudly paste pictures of your baby on every surface available and want to celebrate the fact that you’re a mother with pretty much anyone who will ask. You don’t want to waste any time that you could have with your children at work (note: after work drinks are a no go). You toy with the idea of leaving work for a while during baby-phase, but will make the decision after baby #2.

3. Becoming boss.  Moving from being part of a team, to leading a team (or organization), is a time where you go through an important identity transition at work – you’re becoming ‘the boss’.  It’s challenging for a few reasons: (1) first you need to accept and see yourself as a leader, and (2) others need to accept you as a leader.

Even if you’ve always wanted to become ‘leader’ of your team or organization, when you finally get offered the position, it might be hard to incorporate this new role into your self-definition. Women are particularly prone to the imposter syndrome (e.g., the “I’ve fooled them all into thinking I’m better than I really am” syndrome).  Many of the women leaders I interviewed found that it took some time to finally say, “I deserve this, I AM the leader”, and start seeing themselves as one. To let themselves out of their pre-defined box and start thinking of themselves differently. I’m not saying this box is only self-imposted…today the ‘prototypical’ leader is still male, and white.  One CEOs quote sums it up:

In hindsight, people saw me as high-performing and gave me opportunity and made me a manager. I always got great projects. At the time though, I was full of doubt and was a workhorse just to prove that I was up to doing the job as I think a lot of women are.” 

Getting others to accept you as a leader (particularly as a woman in a male-dominated organization) is a another bird. It can be tough, and in many cases, women leaders throughout their careers had to rely on positional power and tell themselves “well, my title makes me the leader, so that’s that, deal with it“, because they felt it would never happen.  In some cases they had to leave the company, to be accepted as a leader elsewhere in a more inclusive company culture.  One woman stated “they saw me as a silly little chick, a stilly little girl, and I just couldn’t change it“.

There’s a whole other post, and tons of research on this topic alone. As I’ve written a lot for today (sorry!),  I’m going to write more later on the strategies used by women to influence other’s views (of them).

The other parts of this long ‘series’:

Part 1: Don’t put me in that box
Part 2: Worrying about what other’s think
Part 3: When you’re likely to be boxed
Part 4: Strategies for influencing other’s perceptions (upcoming)

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Don’t put me in that box (Part 2): worrying about what others think

A lot of my posts over the next while will be my research-related findings/ideas/rants. One of the frustrating things about the PhD is that you write up articles pretty much only for the academic world. And how many of us outside of universities read academic papers? And unpublished academic papers at that?  Um, pretty much never. Alas, I want to actually write some things that I can point colleagues, students or friends to when they ask to read some of what I’ve been working on for the last – too many – years. The academic papers might be scarily boring.

Onward. In the last post I introduced part of my PhD research. For one study, I interviewed 21 senior women leaders (working in big corporations in Australia) about things like: (1) how they’re seen by their-mostly male-colleagues, (2) whether they like (or dislike) it, and (3) what they do – if anything – to manage other’s perceptions (of them).

Some interesting findings for today’s post:

1. The ‘what others think’ worry.  Most of the women I interviewed thought a lot about how others perceived them. The spectrum ranged from a niggling in the back of their mind, to full-on worry constantly when at work. For example, one CEO stated: ”

“I used to worry – I used to worry about what every single person thinks. In fact I used to worry myself into a tizz about what everybody thought of me.  If I worry, I don’t sleep, and then of course its a bit of a spiral because your’e not in control during the day, being worried more, and I mean — it’s horrid really. You you’re better NOT to worry about it as much…but I still do worry”.  

And another senior director:
“I think about it more than I’d like to admit. It eats me up inside, it’s hard to ignore. I wish I could be more black and white about it, you know, less invested in what people think. But I am.”

Lets face it, our career progression tends to be tied to how certain people think of us. So how do we balance a healthy “concern” in how we’re seen by important others , with becoming over-the-top worried or consumed by it? When we worry too much about something like this, it sends our “cognitive load” over the top. Basically, it takes up brainpower. If we only have so many brain resources to dedicate to important issues at any given point of time (say you’re in a big negotiation or exam) and really need to use your brain for that purpose, consuming brain resources with things like “how do they see me” can impact performance. It’s normal (and in some cases helpful!) to care — personally, I think that those who care about how they’re being received as a teacher, or in a negotiation for example, can make the decision to do something about it to better the outcome. However, there needs to be a balance. Once I was railroaded in front a group when I thought a participant in the program was bored (one of those guys with a resting angry face). Turns out he was actually interested, just thinking about what I was saying, and I wasted a heck-of-a-lot of brainpower worrying about it.

2. With age (and power) comes freedom.  Who said growing older was a bad thing? What I found was that as women ‘matured’ in their careers, they worried less about how others saw them, and became more comfortable with “being themselves”, not towing the line, and speaking their minds.  Some said that if they could go back in time they would be less overly-concerned with what others thought, because in hindsight it was a losing battle anyway. For example:

“It’s certainly a confidence thing that comes from having been the boss, frankly.  It’s okay to be a bit of a dag and speak your mind.”

3. Human is good.  In my opinion, the more successful leaders (of course, depending on how you define success) balance a “healthy interest” in how supervisors, peers and employees identify them.  That is, they think vertically (e.g., boss, employees) and horizontally (e.g., peers), about what others really know about them. We all know the type of person who manages perceptions “upward”…the kind of jerk who makes sure the boss knows about all of his or her good accomplishments. Down with that type. I’m also not talking about people who concern themselves with ‘does everybody like me?’  I’m referring to those leaders who actually consider whether they’re coming across as a ‘whole person’ to those they work with. These are the people who actually tell you small snippets about their lives so you connect with them on more levels than just “did we make budget last month?” The ones that seem human. Human is good.

On that note, statistically speaking (from another part of my research), people who think that others see their “real self” tend to trust others more, and like working with others more. It’s worth considering whether you’ll let others on to the fact that you have an identity outside of work. Assuming you do, that is.

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Don’t put me in that box! (Part 1)

One of the topics I research is how our thoughts about how others see us (also called ‘meta-perceptions’), can influence us when at work. Takes a second to get your head around. For example, lets say you’re working in your team, and you have the feeling that everyone puts you in a certain box (I always seemed to get the “young woman” label). Or maybe you think that your boss just doesn’t recognize your leadership abilities, or that your colleagues tag you as the “mom” because you have to leave work ‘on time’ to get your kids from daycare. Things like this can influence how you feel toward others, how much you like working with them, and even how well you perform on the job.

Not that I think that we should overly concern ourselves with our colleague’s views of us, but unfortunately in some cases it tends to matter. Your boss thinks you’re incompetent?  In your latest 360-degree feedback you find that your employees think you’re cold and unapproachable? Things like this might impact your career trajectory, and you might not even know about them. So worth considering.

Along those lines, some of my research involved interviewing senior women leaders (managers, directors, CEOs, and board members), working in traditionally ‘male’ organizations (think oil and gas, finance, construction & engineering) about a few topics box100gthat (at least, I find) are really interesting. This was one of the most fun parts of the doing a PhD – actually talking with other human beings.

A few of the questions or topics we chatted about:

1.  Do think at all about how your colleagues see you?

2. If so, how do you think they see you? (e.g., say you’re in a board meeting, and you’re looking at yourself from the perspective of your peers, what do you see?). Are their views accurate? Inaccurate?

3. Do you ever try to influence the way you’re perceived (e.g, any strategies for managing your image?)

Unfortunately I didn’t interview executive men about the same issues — I think contrasting the two groups would be super interesting as I imagine there are gender differences.  There were definitely trends across the women I interviewed and in part 2, I’ll follow up with some of those trends!

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Another resurgence

Greetings 2015!

I find it quite funny (and a bit annoying, I know) that I go on writing-binges, all motivated with my work/learning/teaching, and then disappear for 1.5 years. Time stands still on  a blog…”yesterday” in my posts was actually 1.5 years ago. Creepy. So much has happened since then. A new human was created in the meantime. A gorgeous now-4-toothed-naughty human.

Speaking of the new human, lately I’ve become acutely aware of how having children can consume all of what you thought was ‘you’. I’ve mentioned it before — just when you feel you’ve found your identity, when you start to relish in all the “things” and routines that make you feel “you”, a baby can come along and wipe you out for a good few years. Like eating out? Not anymore!  Like jogging? Not with two milk jugs on your chest!  Like sleep? As if!  Pregnancy, newborn, breastfeeding, preoccupation with nappies, puree, bottles, teething, tantrums, all in the haze of sleep deprivation….I enter into a “mommy” cocoon of sorts. I’ve needed to in order to stay sane. For a a while it’s almost like your body and mind don’t belong to you anymore.  A good few years before you find ‘yourself’ (and your spouse, and your friends?) again.  Finally, the ‘you’ that you do find sometimes resembles the old one, but sometimes doesn’t.  You lose (and gain) a few friend in the process, get closer to (and at times, further from) your partner, decide what part of you to do away with for good, and what parts will re-emerge. I’m in the process of finally feeling like I can make space for the other parts of me to come out again. New and improved, right? 😉

Me, in my post-baby cocoon.

Me, in my post-baby cocoon.


Here we are!

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5 Days at Disney: The Academy of Management Conference

For the past 5 days, I’ve been at the Academy of Management conference, which this year was held in Orlando, Florida.  This conference brings together academics (PhD students, Professors, and some consultants as well) from business schools around the globe. So, all the ‘big’ schools you’ve heard about like INSEAD, Harvard, Wharton, or Kellogg, and also all of those “smaller” (read: not as internationally known) schools like Melbourne Business School or University of St Gallen.  This year there were over 8200 attendees, which I’m told is not even the largest it’s been.  The intent is for academics to present the latest cutting-edge research in the world of management.AOMlogo

In order to get to go to the conference (well, to be funded by your university to go), you must be accepted to present one of your academic papers. This is the painstaking process of submitting a coherent and hopefully interesting paper (by mid-Jan…couldn’t they chose a date that wont ruin your Christmas vacation if you’re a procrastinator?), and then wait 3-4 months to be told whether you’ve been deemed as decent enough to present.  Once you’ve submitted a paper, they send it out to 3 other presenter-hopefuls to review and provide a decision on your worthiness.  I also had to review 3 papers and provide my not-so-expert opinion on their worthiness.

This year I was lucky enough to be accepted to present a paper, and thus, found myself on the “Disney Magical Express” heading to the wonderful world of Disney for 5 days, at 5 months pregnant, in 37 degree, 95% humidity weather.

Disney magical express

A few things I noticed and learned at this year’s conference:

 Disneyworld? Really?

It was pretty ironic to attend a ‘serious’ academic conference at Disneyworld. The theme of this year’s conference was “Capitalism in Question”, and the conference was held in pretty much the epicenter of capitalistic culture. Weird.  It all felt a bit creepy and surreal: academics in suits, thrown into manicured Disney resorts, mixing with tourists out for the pure Disney experience.

5 days? Why so long?

The first 3 days are filled with “Professional Development Workshops” and the symposiums that adhere to the theme of the year.  Symposiums are a group of papers that address a similar theme/question, and they also have a moderator that helps facilitate discussion and provide commentary and critique.  Professional development workshops are, basically, training sessions for academics. I went to some awesome ones on teaching ideas, and training around research methods.

The final two days are the actual paper sessions, and other theme-based symposiums. Typically they bunch 4-5 papers in a 1.5 hour block and you each get 10-15 minutes to present, followed by questions. That’s what I did – and I was super nervous going into it (unnecessary anxiety though, there were hardly any in the session…on the last day!).

 How do 8200 people sit in one room together?

They don’t. The Academy is divided up into many many different divisions, so the sessions are never massive. I’m part of  the divisions: Organizational Behaviour, Conflict Management, and Gender & Diversity.

The real benefit of the conference

Hands down, it’s networking. You meet academics you’ve only read about, and ‘stars’ that publish in your field and write the leadership books you teach about. For someone not in academia that sounds super exciting I’m sure. With the exception of a few, most are approachable and happy to talk about their work.  You also get to meet with other people around the world who are interested in the same thing.

The parties. If you’re not swollen and pregnant, the parties are supposedly awesome. Both divisions and schools hold ‘socials’ or ‘parties’ with drinks a plenty, food, and some parties go well into the night. I’m told the Harvard party is often the best.  I went to a few socials (Richard Ivey, Conflict Management), but by 10pm, I was in bed. Not the typical me, that’s for sure.

Of course, learning what’s being studied in your field out there is also inspiring and fascinating. Wish I could go every year!  So there you have it, that’s where I was for the past 5 days…thoroughly enjoying my time at the “magical world of Disney” while poor Achim was at home on toddler-duty 🙂


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Hitting the reset button

We have  landed in Chile, and I’m a fish out of water. All of the comforting things that once surrounded me are on a boat, and my favourite friends and local haunts have disappeared. Everything is new, I don’t know anyone here. That gets me thinking: can I ‘become’ someone new? Could I really be anyone I want in a new place?  Can I literally just hit reset? It’s a bit like when you start a new job: you get the opportunity to ‘be’ someone else at the new organisation. Nobody there knows your past successes, failures or reputation, you’re starting afresh!  While you cant jump out of your own skin into someone else’s, and it’s pretty close to impossible to change your innate personality, at some level in a new place you’re free to craft a new ‘image’.

When it comes to presenting ourselves to others we tend to go to great lengths to project what we want others to see.  The clothes you wear, for example, can tell others lots of things about you, like whether you are liberal or conservative, wealthy or destitute, easygoing or meticulous, flashy or sedate, prudish or promiscuous (Swann, 1983).  Sometimes how you present yourself to others really is a representation of the ‘real’ you, and other times it could be a complete misrepresentation – c’mon, nobody feels truly themselves in a job interview, right?.

It’s interesting to think about how you project your identity. Whether you do it consciously or not, people read into how you speak, act, dress, and behave in social situations. So when given the opportunity to start afresh with it all, would you be the ‘same’, or would you try to craft a ‘new you’?  I will ponder that question before I throw myself into the social community here.

I’ve always wanted to be more of the silent reflective type – perhaps I can give it a go? When it comes down to it,  no matter what you do, you cant really hide your true self for long- it always finds a way to come out of the woodwork. But what you can do is think about the things that you’ve been tied to in the past that have stuck with you, that no longer need to hold you back. For example, that last office Christmas party embarrassment will not follow you to the new life, nor will the time you accidentally copied a work colleague in on a personal email. Not that these have happened to me (!), but it is fun to think about what you can do if you get to hit reset.

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