While there may still be a long road before gender disparity in the global workforce is achieved, the difficulties faced by international assignees, particularly female expatriates, are pressing. With the onset of globalisation, it is imperative for any professional wishing to climb to the top rungs of the corporate ladder to have received international work exposure. As aptly highlighted by Tushikan in her article on the importance of international assignments for millennial women, “Global experiences build a variety of skills that are critical to career growth – cultural competency, flexibility, learning to work with various people and tactical problem-solving”.
However, this is easier said than done, particularly for female expatriates who have to juggle a combination of gender, cultural, and political factors in their host countries, which their male counterparts do not face or deal with on a lesser degree. Moreover, due to perceived gender dissimilarities, male and female expatriates often have different concerns during their assignments. All of these factors combined result in vastly different experiences for male and female expats when on their international assignments.
Female Expatriates and International Assignments
A PwC study noted that more women than males have expressed disinterest in working in Africa and the Middle East, which are deemed unsafe and male-dominated respectively. For example, in Saudi Arabia, females are unable to work without a male sponsor or husband, and women are often segregated from the men at public areas. These are clear indicators of the country’s leaning towards a patriarchal society and as such, disadvantageous to women assigned to senior leadership roles who have learn how to assert themselves in such a culture.
In contrast, Nordic countries including Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Denmark are considered among the best countries in the world for expat women. This is partly due to government mandated maternity and parental leave, which is of significant concern to women looking to build their families or bring them over during the course of the assignment. Countries with strong female economic and/or political participation, such as New Zealand, are also considered excellent choices for women expats as well, due to their emphasis on gender parity in their regulations, defending women against discrimination.
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Discriminatory work regulations
In certain countries, women are explicitly disallowed from certain industries and roles. Women in Russia, for instance, have been prohibited by law from more than 400 different types of jobs, which are considered harmful and/or dangerous, as well as underground work. Citing women’s health issues as a rationale for the prohibition, the forbidden job list includes tasks ranging from driving trucks transporting agricultural produce, to woodworking.
In a similar vein, a report by the World Bank has also revealed that nearly every economy in the Middle East and North Africa has at least one restriction on women’s work. Restrictions on women’s work is not just limited to these two regions but also, surprisingly, in high-income economies, including Chile, Czech Republic, France, Japan, South Korea, Poland, and Slovenia. The overarching trend of overt gender discrimination in the workforces of several regions across the world, despite culture, degree of economic development, or income, signals that power dynamics in the global workforce are still largely tipped towards the sterner sex.
Female Expatriates Dealing with Culture Shock
Moving to another country will be disorienting for most people and for women, there is an added aspect – sexism. Throughout different parts of the world, women have noted gender discrimination and have had to develop strategies to assert themselves or garner respect from male counterparts. A BBC article, encompassing experiences of female expatriates in various countries, shared that a female assignee in Switzerland often had to prepare reports which male colleagues presented, in order to attract the client’s attention. In Saudi Arabia, a woman is not allowed to wear what she pleases and has limited access to transport. Men and women are not allowed to work in the same office and women often have to tap on loopholes to get work done, such as booking official meetings.
In order to deal with such scenarios, experts have advised female expatriates to develop coping mechanisms to avoid feelings of isolation. For example, seeking out relationships with fellow expats with the same value system would be beneficial towards maintaining a healthy outlook on work and life in the foreign country.
Unsafe conditions in other countries for Female Expatriatess
While culture shock is inevitable in a host country and discrimination bars women from accomplishing their jobs and being included in society, the extent of sexism in certain countries makes international assignments dangerous for women. In India, more than one instance of harrassment (sexual and physical) by a superior was cited by a female expat, and that while women “are revered as goddesses, bringers of life and the figurehead of the home”, they are “also not given any tangible power or space in the public sphere”. (Do note, that such individual experiences are subjective and may also depend on the region of the country.)
Laws skewed towards males
Countries with religious ideology may have laws that are disadvantageous to the unknowing female expatriate. In Dubai, sharia law, which are based on Islamic principles, can be utilised by an ex-husband to gain custody of a child in the event of a divorce, even if both parties are non-Muslim and the marriage was ordained overseas. As such, it is important for female expatriates to research the regulations of a country and to be aware of the pitfalls should they ever need to get involved in the law, before accepting the job assignment.
The good news is that, there are certain ways to circumvent the obstacles or develop means to accommodate the knowledge gap that assignees encounter during their time overseas.
In our next and final article, we will consider and expound on the strategies companies can deploy or areas they can look into, in order to mend the gender gap in international assignees.
Check out the second part of our series on Gender and Global Mobility. It features an extensive study undertaken by Andy Almenara, Lilla Kelemen-Toroczkai, Myrophora Koureas, Evan Zhang who are students completing the MBA Program at The University of Sydney Business School. The student work was supervised by Associate Professor Rae Cooper and Jane Counsel.
We want to explore the reasons behind who gets selected for an assignment. In particular, what role does Global Mobility play?We could use your help in a big way if you contributed to this 5 minute anonymous survey. so we can have a better idea of how our industry can get more women on international assignments.
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