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The Expat’s Survival Guide 3

Women and International Jobs: Don't Let Gender Get in the Way

Unless you live in Norway and are feeling the trickle down effects of a mandatory quota initiated in 2002 stating that boards of large public companies must appoint women to 40 percent of their non-executive board director posts, then you along with many other professional women are feeling the effects of a corporate life with few female executive role models to turn to for guidance and support. While Norway is making history, for many women it is still quite evident that men outnumber women in the ranks of senior management. 

With fewer women calling the shots, what does this mean for you? Might you be viewed or treated differently knowing that you are a woman? Can gender put you on the sidelines? If you are not golfing on the weekends with your boss, getting together after work to grab a beer, or watching the finals of some sporting event with the guys, you may be missing out on prime opportunities to bond with senior management and learn about new opportunities. Or if you are already heading abroad; will you feel the pangs of the gender gap where you are going? While gender shouldn’t matter, it usually does.  

What will you do if you run off to an expat assignment where the entire senior management is male? What does this mean for you? On top of fitting in on the job, how will your social life be impacted? If you are single and heading off to a country where family and roots are more important than climbing the corporate ladder, you might be perceived as strange. Why would a young woman leave her family and friends behind for an international work experience? Be prepared for an onslaught of questions.

In most cases, women will have a more difficult transition from both a professional and personal perspective. As always, you will just have to be that much tougher and confident in your abilities. However, this does not mean that you should throw in the towel...just know that it will not be easy. Be ready for a more rigorous examination process and a closer look at you and your ability to perform.

My philosophy is that you only live once and if working abroad is what you want then go for it! Just know that you will be bucking what society expects of you. Family versus career, both are certainly possible and why shouldn’t they be? My point is that you might be perceived differently than other women if you choose first to follow your career and then start a family later.

Below I have identified some issues to think about as you consider life abroad as a female professional.

  1. Get ready for an uphill journey – you will confront many of the issues you experience at home and certainly a few more. Where is it that you want to go…somewhere in Europe, South America or the Far East? As we are talking about living abroad and not a vacation on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, you must understand the terrain…the working and social terrain that is. Are you going to Heaven or Hell with respect to putting your career first. What is the culture and how are women perceived in the job market? Whether you sink or swim will be a result of your ability not only to succeed in your job but also your ability to manage your company’s view or public sentiment of a woman’s role in the workplace. Add to this the need to create a life outside the office and things can get complicated.

Survival tip: While success or failure will depend largely on you, there are certainly means by which you can obtain insight into what your life overseas will be like. Roll up your sleeves and do your research. Start with the World Economic Forum which publishes annually the Gender Gap Index measuring the gap between women and men in the areas of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival within 115 countries. Then there are several resources that cover cultural norms in the workplace. In an earlier article on expatriate life, I referred to Geert Hofstede. Professor Hofstede conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of how values affect workplace cultures. His research is based on the analysis of IBM employees from more than 70 countries. Hofstede uses five cultural dimensions to compare workplace behavior. Using Hofstede’s model one can compare the cultural norms of two different countries. For example, you can compare the Masculinity Index, the distribution of roles between genders, for your home and host country. 

However, the best way to learn involves speaking directly to women who are living the experience. How do you find them? Go to your employer and/or your own professional and personal networks. So who are these women? They are family, friends, former classmates or alumni from your university or post-graduate studies, current and past colleagues, and professional associates. Put together a list of questions relating to living and working in your target country and then try to speak to as many women as possible. You’ll want to learn in advance if you are joining the ranks of a highly masculine company or society. If so, how are foreign women coping and are you up for the challenge? In most places there are associations or groups that cater to women abroad. One group in Europe is the European Professional Women’s Network which has local chapters in several European countries.

In the end, be prepared for some hiccups along the way. When I first relocated to Italy my boss, a woman, soon left the company for personal reasons. I then became the ward of a senior executive, male engineer by function, and thus no longer had access to the guidance or protection of a native, senior-level female. The engineering/male-oriented culture of both the country and culture became even more evident. To survive, I had to do my best to keep things impersonal and use my experience and work ethic as tools to move forward and get the job done.

  1. Know thyself. Socrates enlightened us with this brief but meaningful quote. When you look at yourself in the mirror, who do you see? It is not always so easy to assess yourself. However, evaluating your strengths and weaknesses will help you identify your limitations. Knowing your challenges in advance will allow you to take proactive actions to overcome them. For example, if you are an “A” type moving to a country where public transportation is not reliable, strikes are frequent and the attitude is more relaxed in the office; can you survive? Knowing that family and friends are far away, can you cope if you are making the transition abroad alone? Are you capable of re-inventing yourself and making friends in a new city? Can you take a holiday and travel alone? These are just a few of the questions that you will have to ask yourself. On the other hand, if you are relocating with a spouse and do not have a job. What will you do? Chances are, it may be difficult from a legal standpoint for a local company to hire you. Can you deal with an uphill battle of finding yourself professionally? Can you turn your past experiences into something entrepreneurial?

    Survival tip: Unless you have a crystal ball, there is no way of knowing what will be the outcome of your experience abroad. The point is that you should not approach this experience wearing rose-colored eyeglasses. To begin, put together a list of your strengths and weaknesses and then ask a select group of people that know you well enough to review the list for comments or better yet ask them to make their own list of your strengths and weaknesses. Next, identify the trends in your strength and weaknesses. After this exercise you should have a pretty good picture of yourself. Now that you have your list, cross reference it against what you learned from the interviews above. For example, if you are a shy and timid person moving to a close-knit society that does not easily accept strangers you know that you will have to work extra hard to fit in.

    I can tell you as a single woman, I get every type of question about almost every aspect of my life—which at times can make even me second-guess myself. On top of that, I have been challenged with starting over…again. A new city means a new everything, and let’s face it as we get older it is not always so easy. Long gone are the days of university when you were thrown together with 1,000-plus coeds of the same age with a common link of studies, hobbies, partying, etc. Whether it is traveling alone or creating a social life, you have to get out there and just do it, even when you can create 1,000 excuses of why you can’t or don’t want to.   

  1. How fast is your clock ticking? If your short-term goal is to settle down, taking an overseas assignment might not be the right path for you. Think of what it is like to start a new job. There are all the anxieties of making a good first impression. Now add to this adjusting to a new city, culture, and language and a relationship just might take a backseat to establishing yourself, fitting in and succeeding on the job. Will you be satisfied with your choice to pursue a career abroad while many of your friends might be settling down? Will you be wondering if the grass is greener on the other side?

Survival tip: The only advice I can give you on this topic is to be honest with yourself and do what’s right for you. We all move at different speeds and have different expectations in life. Follow what is best for you and not your sister, brother or best friend.

  1. Enjoy yourself. While it is easy to get caught up in proving yourself on the job, don’t neglect your social life. This can be a tough balancing act. On one hand, you have been invited to a foreign country in a work capacity and naturally your initial objective is to prove yourself in the office. On the other hand, if you do not have anything going on outside the office, life can get heavy.

Survival tip: You need to work on your social life from the beginning. Check out clubs for women or newcomers. Then you must go to the meetings, happy hours, etc. faithfully (more than once) even if at first it feels awkward and strange. If you feel uncomfortable in these types of situations, get over it. You need to make an effort to meet new people otherwise you will be very lonely and missing out on what your host country has to offer you. For women, creating a social circle can be more difficult depending on where you are located. In some cultures it is unusual for a woman to go out in the evening alone whether it be a bar or a restaurant. This is why it is imperative to work on your social life from the beginning. 

At the end of the day if you are not enjoying yourself than why bother. Let me tell you it is very easy to get complacent and caught up in a job-focused life. However, this is huge mistake. In most cases, my own included, it is generally an excuse that is based on habit, pride or fear that prevents you from saying what the hell and taking the initiative. Fortunately enough for me, I got over this hurdle.

As a woman working abroad, I have received all kinds of questions regarding age, civil status, settling down, being far from home, etc. In most cases, it is a genuine inquisitiveness to better understand another person. Of course, there have been other instances where the intent was to deliberately embarrass or hurt me. Luckily, these were rare occasions. The point is, keep your emotions under control and never take it personally. Sometimes what is acceptable in one culture is not in another, and vice versa. Don’t get me wrong, culture should not be an excuse to be ignorant, rude or insulting, just know that not everyone you encounter will be as culturally open as you are. Lastly and most importantly, what matters most and probably the reason you received an offer to work abroad, in the first place, is your experience. If you have the needed background, education, and work history then that’s what’s important on the job—not your gender.

If the opportunity to work abroad comes your way and fits into your own plans then by all means take it. The experience will set you apart from the rest but more importantly will broaden your horizons both professionally and personally. The growth and learning that you will achieve go way beyond what you can read in a book or learn in a classroom. 

References

1) Roberts, Yvonne. You’re fired!

2) World Economic Forum. The Gender Gap Index assesses countries on how well they are dividing their resources and opportunities among their male and female populations, regardless of the overall levels of these resources and opportunities. By providing a comprehensible framework for assessing and comparing global gender gaps and by revealing those countries that are role models in dividing these resources equitably between women and men, serves as a catalyst for greater awareness as well as greater exchange between policymakers. 


Leslie Strazzullo
For more by Leslie in this series, see:
Expat's Survival Guide 1: Go From Expatriate to Compatriot
Expat's Survival Guide 2: Searching for International Jobs
Expat's Survival Guide 4: Surviving Change and Uncertainty Abroad
Expat's Survival Guide 5: Finding an International Job Post Crisis — I Did It!