A recent RES Forum survey found women make up a small percentage of the expat assignment population, and that while both male and female expats experience a positive short-term effect on their careers from assignments, men enjoyed better career progression long term.
Reasons cited for this include family, risk aversion and a poor link between talent and global mobility. But how does this compare with women's own experiences of international assignments, and their reasons for not pursuing one?
Joanne Danehl, global practice leader, intercultural training, Crown World Mobility
“The reason why women don’t take assignments is practical and logistics-based. When my company relocated me from Swinton to Chicago when I was 35, I was single and I didn’t have children to think about. So for me it was a very, very clear career path. I knew I was going to go further, faster, if I got an international assignment under my belt. I initially planned to go home after three to five years but, actually, it didn’t make sense to go home because my career was accelerating much faster here. I’m married now and in my marriage my career is the dominant one – but I still do more of the housework. McKinsey has done a study highlighting a trend called the ‘double burden syndrome’ where female leaders still feel an obligation to balance work and their domestic responsibilities more [than men]. I don’t think you can change the fact that there are nurturing competences that are more dominant in women than men – they are somewhat primal – the paradox is that these competences actually make them very good expat assignees and leaders.”
Heather Hughes, general manager, the RES Forum
“My husband was transferred from London to Paris. We found life much tougher than we expected. Our decision to come back was to do with the kids, our primary concerns being around their education and healthcare. Companies need to think about more than the work. If women have families and spouses or kids, there is so much more than work she’ll consider, perhaps more than a man. In my line of work, I’m moving people around. They have families they take with them but during this experience I suddenly got insight into what life is actually like, that I’d never comprehended before. The expat community we knew in Paris was one where the men went out to work and the women stayed at home with the kids. I’m not sure how a man [a male trailing partner] would fit into that, particularly without children. It would be very isolating.”
Alison Dodd, CEO of UK Payroll & HR provider Moorepay:
“Eleven years ago, when I was working for Microsoft, I transferred from Australia to London. As a single person – male or female – it’s easier to pack up and move. When you have a partner, like I did, or a family, there is a much broader conversation to be had around the move. It was a joint decision for us. I had four job options on the table and I said ‘where would you like to live?’ The most important thing was the whole package.”
“My former employer Microsoft offered me an assignment in the Middle East / Africa. I would have loved that job, it would have been fantastic for me personally and culturally. But to take my partner to live in that environment was probably a step too far, even though the company would have been very supportive and looked after me. So I turned it down; because of the culture, I wouldn’t have been able to have a work/life balance. And having balance outside work is important to keep you motivated, enthused and energised – without it it’s hard to sustain work-focus.”
Penny Davenport, former managing director of Markit Group and of Lombard Group, now an executive coach
“I did an expat assignment in my mid twenties and I don’t remember hesitating or having any issues. I travelled in Japan a lot as a young woman. It’s really important to get global experience on your CV. It was of huge value to me. I felt it was a huge springboard to my career when I came back. After my twenties, I didn’t travel. I don’t think I would have taken an expat assignment when my children were young; their education would have been a factor which would have put me off. Companies could definitely do more to encourage women in terms of relocation packages if they really want to persuade them. Just saying ‘we have this opportunity and this is the standard package’. That is less appealing.”
Arlene Stokes, people director, operational excellence at Standard Life
“I didn’t experience barriers to doing an expat assignment in Hong Kong. In my company the international assignments are taken as part of an ongoing development plan and you are supported as part of a talent pipeline. In my experience, men are just as likely as women to express concerns about factors like children settling into school or living abroad. I’m surprised that’s a reason that would stop women taking these opportunities. Although I went as a single person, I have close friends, both men and women, who have taken their families abroad. I would say to women with concerns that they should share those concerns and try and overcome them because it’s such a rewarding experience and I’ve seen friends and their families have a terrific life experience. Professionally, it’s helped me, without a doubt.”