Let’s start the article with a striking statistic. In 91% of cases, the expatriate’s spouse is a woman. A woman who, in one out of three cases, even admits to having “sacrificed” herself professionally to complete her husband’s project. This sacrifice is more widespread among women, but is gradually changing sides.
Expat woman: the obstacles
There are many gender clichés that accompany expatriation. Whether it be:
- the higher perception of a man’s career compared to a woman (“stay, you’re lucky, your husband earns well!”);
- the housewife being more socially acceptable than the man (“3 months paternity leave? Relax”);
- the prevalence of the man’s career (“It’s your wife who wears the knickers”).
The same is true on the professional side where, according to a 2012 Catalyst report, only 17% of women accept international assignments, compared to 28% of men. Although they are just as willing to take on an international role as their male counterparts, 64% of women say they have never been asked to go abroad, compared to only 55% of men, according to the report.
And the stereotypes persist:
- As early as the selection process (with prejudices about a woman’s suitability for expatriation to certain countries).
- The misjudgement of women’s qualifications to take on such a role.
- A lack of visibility of these offers for women.
- Finally, the lack of practical support or flexible working arrangements with regard to managing multiple careers or family issues.
When future expat women create barriers for themselves
What if the cure for female expat development was hidden within themselves? All too often, women prevent themselves from living the life they would like to lead abroad. They take advantage of their spouse’s young age to leave before he or she has a better job, or the decline in their forty-something husband’s career that should be at its peak.
Would-be expat women tend to think:
- That it is not their role to expatriate;
- That they should not apply due to a lack of legitimacy and fear of failure (compared to their male counterparts);
- That they might sacrifice their husband’s career;
- That they will not be able to reconcile their work, expatriation and family life;
- That they might jeopardise the stability of the home by moving abroad;
- Or that they fear becoming the sole financial support for the family.
Apart from professional and gender clichés, the key to their success is certainly self-confidence.
Every year, the proportion of women following their spouse decreases according to the Expat Communication study (92% in 2017 vs. 90% in 2019). Is this a sign that mentalities are changing?
Facilitating female expatriation in companies
Trends are changing, but in reality, women are still largely in the minority if we consider all professionals sent on expatriation. Now that the facts are in, what can be done about them?
- Offer more positions of power to women. Indeed, expatriation is more likely to be offered to hierarchically high profiles.
- Implement clearer and more regular policies (and not informal ones) such as internal surveys for both men and women in the company to gauge their desire for expatriation.
- Change attitudes towards female expatriation (women’s ambition is lower than men’s, risks for women are perceived as higher, abandon clichés of female family obligations, etc.).
- Develop the careers of their high potential female employees through mentoring programmes or leadership workshops.
- Offer more benefits or incentives for spouses of expatriate women.
Changing societal attitudes, increasing women’s self-confidence combined with changing corporate approaches and practices are three of the ingredients needed for the perfect female expatriation cocktail.