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Making the Most of Your Assignment

Maximizing the Success of Women on Overseas Assignments

By Saskia Meckman
Independent Intercultural Trainer & Consultant

Multinational corporations (MNCs) are continuously looking for the ideal "globally astute expatriate." Women as well as men are being sought out for these positions. Women comprise nearly half of the workforce in the U.S., of which half hold managerial positions, yet only 13% are currently being sent on overseas assignments. Why then are women expatriates still viewed as an anomaly?

The few studies that have been conducted on women in the global workforce continue to argue that commonly held myths, (first defined by Nancy Adler over twenty years ago), are still very much present. Most MNCs today still assume that women are not interested in working overseas and that they do not want to become international managers. MNCs continue to be afraid that women might not be successful on an overseas assignment and that foreign cultures' prejudices against them will render them ineffective. More recent studies in this field have been conducted by Paula Caligiuri, President of Caligiuri & Associates and founder of the SAGE (Self-evaluation for Global Endeavors). Based on her theory of social support, she argues that four sets of variables - personality characteristics, family and company support, and host nationals' attitudes towards women, are all predictors of a female expatriate's success. Caligiuri's research has served as framework and reference when measuring success for one of the most current studies in this field.

Preliminary results from the author's study on women expatriates offer MNCs and their women expatriates some relevant and practical findings. The aim of the study was to discover whether MNCs are providing their female expatriates the support needed to maximize their success overseas.

The study surveyed expatriate women, representing a variety of nationalities, ages, and positions within their company, sent overseas by eighteen different MNCs, working in one of four different regions of the world - Europe, Asia, Africa, and the US.

Many questions related to women expatriates, and the support they receive from their companies in today's global economy, still remain unanswered. This study attempts to answer pertinent questions by surveying the very women who are being sent overseas.

Advantages Overseas?

Cornelius Grove and Willa Hallowell, partners with Cornelius Grove and Associates, have long suggested that women expatriates ultimately have an advantage over men in overseas assignments as they are "accustomed to operating in a system in which the majority of power is held by people unlike themselves, i.e., men." Most respondents in the current study noted personal characteristics that enabled them to function in an unfamiliar environment and positively affected their assignment overseas. These characteristics were being open minded, outgoing, flexible and adaptable, enjoying challenges, and having a positive outlook on life; all skills that most interculturalists feel are needed to foster cross-cultural relationship building. Rita Bennett, managing director of Cendant Intercultural, The Bennett Group, highlights that "...many women naturally possess characteristics that may make it easier for them to succeed in a vastly different culture and bridge the cultural differences."

It would make sense then for HR managers and overseas assignment decision-makers to look more attentively at potential candidates' characteristics and evaluate how these may affect overseas assignments.

Additionally, they need to become more aware of the importance of selecting the very best people regardless of gender and encourage all members of a MNC to apply for available overseas positions. A variety of support offerings need to come from the MNCs in order to maximize the potential for success for women expatriates on an overseas assignment.

According to most respondents in the study, when MNCs promote expatriate women as their best qualified candidate for the job, countries where women do not usually hold executive or even managerial positions will begin to take women expatriates more seriously. Strong and continued support from senior management, both from regional directors overseas as well as from managers at the MNC's headquarters, is the ideal combination. Often presenting women as an expert in the field or a valuable resource commonly appeases the minds of host nationals. This is especially true when women do not have a higher power status or a managerial role within the company. Higher-level women expatriates typically have more positive experiences than women with lower-level positions. Not surprisingly, the study found that the few host nationals' negative attitudes were primarily related to the respondent's higher power status and position, rather than their gender.

Most of the respondents found that the host nationals' attitudes were overall positive, and that their male host national colleagues were not reluctant to accept them as expatriates. Had these women been in countries where gender discrimination is more overt, these findings might not have been the same.

Some women did, however, find themselves in situations where they were not always as easily accepted. Being the first woman expat in a new work team was not uncommon and did pose challenges, since some respondents felt their team had a clear "adversity to change." The less culturally aware the group was, the more resistance women encountered. Some women expatriates were more prepared than others with handling these adverse situations. They attributed this awareness partially to the support given to them before they were sent on an overseas assignment. Preparing women expatriates before they are sent overseas might alleviate unnecessary frustrations and concerns when working overseas.

Types of Support Provided

The majority of the women surveyed agreed that they were the most satisfied with the support received during their assignment, as opposed to before or after. The most documented type of support provided by MNCs came in the form of cross-cultural training, provided either in-house or more often, outsourced through a global relocation or cross-cultural training company. This type of training was only offered to half of the respondents and the most commonly cited training was post-arrival. Attending a cross-cultural training program, whenever available, not only provides the expatriate woman with a better understanding and respect for the host culture, but will also help identify her own strengths and challenges when living and working in a foreign country. These are all skills that are key to a successful assignment.

Respondents reported that few MNCs offered other forms of support, although in-country support networks, mentors, and company policies supporting women on overseas assignments, were available to a fraction of the respondents.

Networking and mentoring have long been common practices in the male-dominated business world. Today, such programs are attracting more MNCs’ interest and have become the latest "buzz words". Women executives are still working very hard at placing themselves in strategic positions that will allow them to become successful mentors to co-workers, particularly in the global workforce. According to Dr. Margaret Linehan, (author of “Senior Female International Managers: Why So Few”), the reality is that there is still a considerable lack of senior female mentors in international positions. Mentors provide an immediate circle of support, not only by increasing women expatriate's visibility within the company but also highlighting their promotional prospects. One of the most important roles of a mentor is to keep women expatriates in touch with the home office, facilitating their re-entry process.

It is rather disturbing to see how little is actually being done regarding repatriation. MNCs give this topic very little attention, as the majority of the respondents gave this area the lowest rating. Repatriation is, however, slowly gaining MNCs attention as employees worldwide are increasingly leaving their current company when returning "home". This is not surprising considering the findings in the Global Relocation Trends Survey 2000, indicating that only 68% of MNCs offer a post-assignment guarantee of employment. MNCs might take note that repatriation discussions should take place before the women expatriate is sent overseas, so that everyone is clear about what happens upon repatriation.

Job opportunities upon return to the home country should be discussed with the woman expatriate's and her family's best interest in mind. Families of expatriates are too often forgotten in the shuffle. Their concerns need to be considered by MNCs. When these are overlooked, the time, money, and efforts spent will ultimately lose effectiveness and result in frustration for both the MNC and women expatriates and their families.

Does the "sink or swim" theory sound familiar to you? When companies send their employees overseas without any form of preparation or support, the clear message that is being sent out is, "This is all up to you!" Being proactive and facilitating women expatriates' overseas assignments will visibly make the employee more productive more rapidly. Armed with this knowledge, one would expect MNCs to provide their employees with substantial services that would alleviate the headaches and worries associated with adjusting to a new culture.

Family Matters

Partner satisfaction and overall family concerns have consistently been documented as the number one greatest cause of assignment failure. Why then did most of the respondents in this study still feel that their MNC had done little to nothing to prepare their families when relocating overseas? MNCs did offer assistance to a few with work permits, visas, and finding a job. However, not one offered formal in-country support networks or mentors for family members. And little was offered in the way of spouse/partner work assistance. The topic of dual career couples continues to be labeled a "hot button", as more and more MNCs are witnessing employees refusing overseas assignments based on their spouse/partner's career choices.

Dr. Anne P. Copeland, Executive Director of The Interchange Institute, has found in her extensive research on female spouses/partners that companies offering career support services to spouses receive big return on this investment through having more satisfied and better adjusted families. Women who found ways to protect their professional identities -- even, in some cases, in the absence of paid employment - considered their international assignments successful, while those suffering losses in professional identity were quite unhappy.

Although very little has been documented on male spouses, they are slowly creating a name for themselves. The loss of professional identity that male spouses encounter, as well as the isolation and unconventional stresses related to being a minority in a foreign country, are beginning to be taken more seriously by MNCs than they have been for female spouses. Respondents in this study did still find that MNCS provided very little support for their spouse/partner. Fortunately, some of the family support received was given to those who had children and teens. Flexible time off and financial support for school tuition and fees were the most common types of support provided. Cross-cultural training for children/teens was only offered to a handful of respondents. Most rated their families' adjustment, despite the lack of company support, as fairly good.

Support provided by family members towards the women expatriates was rated as excellent! Family support and encouragement was critical to the overall success of the women's overseas assignment.

Almost all respondents agreed that without the support from their families, both the immediate family network as well as the broader family circle, the challenges of an overseas assignment would have been even more demanding. Many felt that being with family in a foreign environment made all the difference. Spouses made an extra effort to help out with chores and traveled along on business trips. Children soaked up knowledge and languages like sponges and were enriched by the new cultures around them, resulting in proud parents. It is for these reasons, and many more, that MNCs need to make critical changes in increasing the support that they provide women expatriate's spouses/partners and children/teens.

And Where Do We Go From Here?

Failing to provide women expatriates and their families with a variety of resources and support systems deprives women of avenues of success on global assignments. The good news is that most of the respondents felt that their MNC had provided some form of support, whether it was financial, practical, emotional, logistical, social or cultural. This does not mean that more is not needed. Yet, it indicates that MNCs are beginning to see the value of fully preparing women expatriates and their families, by providing enough support for a successful overseas assignment. Women expatriates need to be proactive in making sure their needs are met. An overwhelmingly strong voice of encouragement came from the respondents when asked to provide tips for other women interested in obtaining, or who had already accepted an overseas assignment.

According to the "Passport to Opportunity - US Women in Global Business" Study conducted by Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory services organization working to advance women in business, women tend to succeed in the business world by seeking out difficult assignments and having influential mentors. What tends to hold them back from top management positions is male stereotyping and preconceptions of women, exclusion from informal networks of communication, and lack of influential mentors. MNCs are becoming more aware of the facts underlining the lack of women expatriates in the global workforce. The next move needs to be a joint effort between women interested in an overseas assignment and MNCs ready to send them overseas. Both need to be ready to listen and communicate with one another so that the phrase "women expatriates" is no longer an anomaly.

Box 1

Tips for Women Expats from Women Expats

  • Go for it!
  • Be assertive, persistent and proactive.
  • Ask for what you need and want.
  • Find a female mentor.
  • Use your resources.
  • Negotiate carefully before accepting anything.
  • Assess the workload beforehand.
  • Do your own research.
  • Learn the local language.
  • Be yourself.
  • Enjoy!

Box 2

Tips for MNCs

  • Select the very best person regardless of gender - be open to sending women on overseas assignments.
  • Notice each potential women expatriate's characteristics, skills, and knowledge, and routinely evaluate how these can best be used on an overseas assignment.
  • Promote women expatriates as your most qualified "expert" and "valuable resource" for the job.
  • Encourage company support to come from regional directors as well as from managers at MNC's headquarters.
  • Prepare women expatriates for their new experience beforehand by providing them and their entire family with a cross-cultural training program.
  • Offer in-country support networks, mentor programs, and company policies supporting women on overseas assignments.
  • Support the entire family, including the spouse/partner as well as the children and teens, during the entire assignment.
  • Arrange for repatriation discussions and support to take place before sending women expatriates and their families back home.
  • Facilitate family support amongst women expatriates and their immediate families.
  • Listen to women expatriates' experiences and learn from one another.

To participate in this ongoing survey on women expatriates, please visit

Reprinted from Expatrium magazine, March 2002,


(1) - This number has remained constant despite a projected higher figure for this year, cited in the Global Relocation Trend Survey 2000 conducted by Windham International, the National Foreign Trade Council, and the Institute for International Human Resources.

(2) - Grove, Cornelius and Hallowell, Willa.

"Female Assignees: Lessons Learned," Runzheimer Reports on Relocation, October 1997.

(3) - Cook, Julie.

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