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Trailing Spouses and their Impact on Gender Diversity in International Assignments

The term trailing spouses was invented by a Wall Street Journal writer in the early eighties, during a wave of globalisation when businesses were expanding overseas. The term describes a spouse who accompanies their partner to another country on their overseas job assignment. In those days the worker was usually a male executive and the trailing spouse was female. The perception was that the trailing spouse would assume a “supporting” role such as being a primary care giver. The main focus then for Global Mobility programs was to keep the primary care giver happy in a new country.

Today, the trailing spouse phenomenon is compelling for several reasons. Firstly trailing spouses are now recognised to have a much wider range of circumstances and needs. In particular there has been a growing awareness of male trailing spouses.

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Employment opportunities for both partners can appeal to an expat couple for numerous factors. While a new country may be exciting for the trailing spouse at first, the passage of time, particularly for long drawn job assignments, kills the initial thrill of living in a foreign city. Having a job can help to mitigate feelings of loneliness, boredom or even helplessness. Duncan Macintosh, a male trailing spouse who holds a full time job, said, “You need something to occupy yourself and you also need to make at least a token effort to learn the language.”

Having a job, he explains, could also help one to acclimatise to local culture and feel included. A dual income has also been made more accessible with the advent of technology – for example, writers or programmers could choose to work from home as long as he or she has access to a computer. For Duncan, who works remotely, maintaining a full time job despite his wife’s relocations is possible as the nature of his work is not tied to an office or location.

Also, particularly in developed countries where the cost of living is higher and in a climate where expat packages are trending towards “lean” and “local”, a dual income may be a necessity. According to Singaporean expatriate magazine Expat Living, double income expat couples in the country are on the rise. Couples with both partners working are also more likely to choose to “localise” (work in accordance to local salaries and conditions).

This creates a new set of problems for Global Mobility teams in supporting international assignments. The success of an assignment can be jeopardised if the trailing spouses is unable to continue their original career, or may be paid less than before, or is limited by cultural and language barriers. Within families with children, the level of support in the host country for working parents becomes a key factor with no designated primary care giver at home.

We have previously highlighted that there is a stark disparity in the ratio of male to female international assignees. According to a PwC Australia study, seven out of 10 female employees in the country desire to work overseas but only 1 of 4 expatriates are women. But interestingly it appears to also be divided by family situation, the same PwC study revealing that nearly half of females on assignment are unmarried, compared to 70 per cent of male assignees being married. This figures reiterate our own findings which reveal that at least half of women working overseas are single, with less than a fifth married. In comparison, more than half of male assignees are married.

Why is this so? There is a common assumption that women with families are less likely to be interested in an assignment. We will debunk that and some other common misconceptions about women and international assignments in our future articles. But the fact remains that while these demographic trends remain, female trailing spouses are and will continue to be in the majority.

With unhappy spouses and family being a top reason why international assignees eventually decide to return to their home country, companies in the Global Mobility industry may wish to offer further spousal support. Programs to spur social integration are well established such as providing classes to learn and adjust to the local culture and language, as well as providing contacts within the domestic expat networks, could also be beneficial for the trailing spouse. But advanced programs go further, for example offering professional support to accompanying spouses, such as career counselling (to adjust to or seek out a new occupation) or aiding in necessary paperwork such as obtaining a work permit or setting up medical insurance. All of which can lead to better international assignment outcomes. One great example of a country that gives attention to and helps trailing spouses assimilate into the new environment is Amsterdam.  The Expatcenter Amsterdam assists in providing accompanying partners with the professional guidance and support neccessary to settle them into Amsterdam.  

For women intrigued by the prospect of working in another country, these desires may be hampered by the country’s social norms and regulations. For example, in Saudi Arabia, gender segregation is strictly enforced upon, and a woman will not be able to enter the country without a male, who must be her husband, sponsor, or male relative. On the flip side, male trailing spouses may not be well regarded in a country like Saudi Arabia, where the head of the household is usually the breadwinner and male. While such overt gender segregation may be considered an exception rather than a norm, these existing regulations suggest that significant distance has to be covered before true gender parity across the working world can be achieved. Our next article in the series will continue to explore the gender gap in today’s working world, in particular, how the experience and treatment of male and female assignees differ.

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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