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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2 Responses to The expatriate woman: does she exist ?

  1. John Bocskay says:

    I’ve been living in Korea since 1998, and I recall there being very few expatriate women then. There are quite a few more now, but the numbers still seem quite skewed (from my own anecdotal observation).

    I blog about expat life and issues as well and am always looking to connect with people who blog about similar topics. Please visit me at sometime. Cheers, and good luck with everything!

    • aly says:

      Thanks so much for the comment! Checking out your blog now and looking forward to following you. The expat world will change eventually – lots a few of my trail-blazing women friends here in Chile are starting it all off here and making a difference in their firms. But its definitely still skewed!

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