Should I stay or should I go? Overseas jobs demand the extra mile

Even sympathetic employers assume that female staff will face problems when posted abroad

For Andrea Huggard-Caine, being sent to Italy as part of a team that was handling a Citibank acquisition in the 1980s was life-changing.

“It broadens your vision,” says Ms Huggard-Caine, who was born in Argentina and brought up in Brazil, where she was educated at an American school. “I’m multicultural and speak five languages. But until I actually lived abroad, I did not have it all figured out from a multicultural perspective,” says Ms Huggard-Caine, who now has her own consulting business.

In a corporate setting, an overseas posting can be a way for women to achieve a breakthrough in their careers. More than 80 per cent of the women that Stacie Berdan, an author and consultant, interviewed for her book Get Ahead by Going Abroad said their international posting had helped them secure more senior positions.

In a globalised economy, international experience benefits everyone’s career. However, Ms Berdan says that for women trying to stand out in a male-dominated business world, overseas experience is particularly helpful.

“The women I interviewed said there were opportunities they did not have in their home market that they could tap into somewhere else, and that they could use [the experience] to differentiate themselves,” she says.

However, while overseas postings provide benefits, they also come with particular challenges for women. These range from the practical, such as navigating unfamiliar childcare and school systems, to the question of the “trailing spouse” or working in cultures where male suspicion of women in business persists.

“A major concern is the role of the husband,” says Mara Swan, executive vice-president of global strategy and talent at ManpowerGroup, the recruitment company. “In certain countries, it’s not as accepted if they’re not working and they’re taking over the role of the woman.”

While many international cities and organisations have well-established social opportunities for expat wives, the needs of accompanying husbands have until recently been overlooked.

Similarly, executives in some countries can be reluctant to accept women as business leaders. In that case, says Ms Swan, “the most important thing is to establish that she’s a decision maker, and often that has to come from the top,” says Ms Swan. “The endorsement is very important.”

Such problems can be overcome. “I was late-20s and blonde and in Asia, and I was not taken seriously at first,” says Ms Berdan, who worked for several years in Hong Kong at Burson-Marsteller, the communications firm. “But once you deliver, that’s all people care about.”

For some women, the first hurdle may be winning the overseas posting in the first place. “The vast majority of the world is open to women, yet companies are unsure and see it as high risk,” says Ms Berdan. “A lot of it has to do with the fact that HR departments are not global and make assumptions.”

This may help explain why the proportion of women expats working in business remains small. While the 2016 Global Mobility Trends Survey — from BGRS, the global relocation services firm — recorded the highest proportion of female expats in the survey’s 21-year history, they still made up just 25 per cent of the total.

Nevertheless, demand from women for overseas postings is rising. In a recent survey by PwC, the professional services firm, more than 70 per cent of millennial women — born between 1980 and 1995 — said they wanted to work outside their home country.

In competitive labour markets, therefore, companies that want to attract the best employees need to be ready to support and encourage their female executives to work abroad. Ms Berdan argues that HR departments have a key role in this: they can both challenge any resistance towards women seeking overseas positions and encourage those who have not yet considered the advantages of an overseas posting.

All expats have to excel at what they do — “and that’s gender neutral,” she says. The further question for employers is “about making sure opportunities are open to everybody”.

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