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Something about this is just not right.
Research suggests that there is no difference between male and female expatriates effectiveness, yet only an estimated 16 to 25 % of females have the lead assignment.
What is going on here? We put this question to Global Mobility Expert, Cathy Heyne, who helps us untangle the assumptions when considering female assignees placement.
What You’ll Discover in this Episode:
- The shift in mindset HR should make about female assignees
- What female candidates can do to break through bias around hiring for assignments abroad
- How cultural dimensions factor into assignment success
Both HR and individual assignees can do more to move the needle on this imbalance.
Listen to the Full Episode:
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Featured on the Show:
- Cathy Heyne – Global mobility expert and managing director of Living Abroad firstname.lastname@example.org
- Episode 120 of Expat Happy Hour Insider Secrets for Assignees and Global HR.
- Families In Global Transition (FIGT)
Don’t miss this brand new opportunity to start putting the way in which you are showing up in your family to the forefront: Global Parenting on Purpose.
Full Episode Transcript:
Welcome to the Expat Happy Hour, this is Sundae Bean from www.sundaebean.com. I am a solution-oriented coach and intercultural strategist for individuals and organizations and I am on a mission to help you adapt and succeed when living abroad and get you through any life transition.
The research that focuses on women as expatriates gives us this stark message that women are underrepresented, the women who are on assignment abroad account for only 25% according to a survey by Brookfield and you can see from other research from Copeland & Meckman that there is something going on worth looking at interchange Institute emphasizes that women are as likely to express interest in assignment abroad. Yet their research shows that only 16% of international expatriates are women.
As my mother would say “That ain’t right.”
What is going on here Cathy? I’ve got a global mobility expert with me today and she understands this discrepancy that I’m talking about when we look at women on assignment.
Sundae: Cathy, welcome back to Expat Happy Hour.
Cathy: Thank you Sundae.
Sundae: So Cathy Heyne is a Global Mobility expert and managing director of Living Abroad and she has been around doing this work for decades.
You might recognize her from Episode 120 when we talked about insider secrets, what Global Mobility professionals wish that assignees new and what assignees wish that Global Mobility understood to best collaborate together.
So she’s generously agreed to come on back to Episode 121 where we’re going to look at what’s going on with female International expatriate assignments.
So thanks again for being here Cathy.
Cathy: Well, thank you Sundae I’m happy to be here again.
Sundae: So I’m all riled up about this, you and I talked about it before. I’ve been digging in the research. And here’s the thing, this is what gets me wild. There’s a recent article that came out from European Research on Management and Business Economics, and Maria Bastida has an article called “Yes, They Can Do It! Exploring Female Expatriates’ Effectiveness. The research concludes after the review that there is no difference between male and female expatriates effectiveness. Yet, what anywhere from 16 to 25 %as an estimate, of females are abroad. The interest is there and the effectiveness is there. But what is going on Cathy? What do you think? What a from your instinct and your experience? What do you think’s going on here?
Cathy: Yeah, it really is interesting because the more I’m out in the industry I hear that women really want to go on an assignment.
Sundae: So what really is happening internally in these companies?
Cathy: So I think part of the issue is that kind of the different balances that you have in companies and management level might not be as diverse as it could be. So what you see is, and it’s just human nature that like attracts like, so it has to be a really aware manager to look at the possibilities and really choose a candidate that is best for the job.
Now, sometimes they think that women are not interested in an international assignment for various reasons. Maybe maybe it’s their own mindset about where women should be, maybe it’s they know that this person just had a baby or has a family at home, that the spouse has a very good job. They’re making all this up, you know in their minds and their heads without really having a discussion with a potential candidate.
Sundae: This is such an important topic. You’re talking about the assumptions that they hold and I think there’s two things going on here.
One is the assumption based on what what that person in their heart probably would call common sense, but not according to the other person unless it’s established together.
The other thing I think is really frightening Cathy, I had happen to me when I was in a leadership position. I was pregnant with my second child and I had a conversation with a leader in the organization, the actual point of the conversation was how I’m going to fast track training in my VP so to speak, because I would be gone for maternity and that’s so important that I have someone to do the work while I’m gone because I’m taking on more leadership and it’s really time to make that happen. So my conversation was about up leveling my leadership and fast tracking who I’m training in and how many people essentially. And what was interesting is the person subconsciously, said to me something about me working 40%, like reducing how much I worked. So the actual words and the conversation were about me increasing my leadership, but there was something going on from like an unconscious bias perspective that caused the person to think they heard that I was leaving.
It is just crazy, this is so frightening because we’ve got things that are going on. Our unconscious bias is present in everybody, no one is exempt from it and if we’re not explicit about our intentions and our wishes, then we leave it up to the unconscious bias and assumptions, untested assumptions of other people.
It’s pretty it’s pretty terrifying, isn’t it?
Cathy: Absolutely, absolutely.
Sundae: So the the research that I was looking at just recently from Anne Copeland and Saskia Meckman that you can find on the FIGT website, Families in Global Transition. What they talk about there are a lot of areas, but two of them that you just mentioned was one, different treatment and then later I want us to talk about different roles, but different treatment what you’re saying is they are overlooked because the person in charge assumes there isn’t an interest?
Cathy: Exactly, exactly,
Sundae: Or they are overlooked because they assume they won’t be successful, maybe because they understand the cultural complexity or the security challenges there.
So let’s talk about that little bit, et’s let’s brainstorm. What can Global Mobility do or HR professionals do to alleviate this differential treatment? And then what can the assignee do? What’s popping up for you?
Cathy: So I can give you a real life example of a company. I heard speak at a conference. It’s PepsiCo, now PepsiCo is a great example on balancing the number of female assignees with male assignees. In fact, I think they’re either 50/50 or if not more female assignees, which is great and they need to be applauded on that. Part of the thing that they did is they made a concerted effort, but and I don’t know if this is good or bad, a lot of the destinations where the female assignees were going are places that they would be more welcome to get their job done. They didn’t send them to really any hardship locations. I’m sure they’re all over the world and they’re in all locations. So in that way they set them up for success, now I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But what I do know is good is that the percentages are almost equal if not more than male assignees.
Sundae: Well, here’s what I’m thinking about, first of all I love that Pepsi is smart enough to realize that if these women are not getting global experience now, they’re going to have a hard time finding female leaders at the top later. So they’re really looking at their pipeline for balanced leadership, I think that’s fantastic.
When I hear that, I I do get it, they would like to send people to context. Because let’s admit it, being a female in this global society where violence against women is higher, you know, hierarchy orientation might dictate discrimination against women in some areas more than others. Pepsi saying “Let’s set up the best context for success”. And what as Interculturalist what I would recommend is then once those women get some stripes abroad and working internationally, they are then best suited to go to the harder locations, right?
Sundae: Where they’ve built up some negotiation skills in some dynamics that might be complex and then they’re actually up leveling the ability to serve the entire planet instead of just those other locations, right? So that’s great, kudos to Pepsi on that one.
Cathy: Now, you did ask me about what things HR can do, and one of the things is to really review their company policy. It has their company policy evolved that it would better address some issues, female expats.
Sundae: Okay, like what like what should what should people be looking for?
Cathy: I think they really have to pay attention to the family portion of it. What do they have to support the family? Because you and I were talking a little bit about an accompanying spouse, male spouse, and you had mentioned that you find that companies are giving them a larger allowance for the accompanying spouse, versus if it was a female accompanying spouse, but I think the issues are that they need to make sure the policy includes certain things. Like maybe if they’re taking care of a parent, that they need to include an extra trip back home so they can check on the parent, oftentimes that care of the parent falls to the female member of the family. Other things like, what about your children? How they are going to be supported, and even though with the male assignee they are supported in that same way, what other things that they can add to the policy to make it more, that they could take whatever those issues are off of your, what you’re worrying about off of you so you can focus on the business at hand.
Sundae: Right, I mean it also goes along with how they update their policies, are they looking at sort of like a heterosexual version of a married couple or are they counting same-sex partners? What qualifies an accompanying partner?
I’ve seen some really progressive changes in several corporations lately to say “You bring your partner”, and they are very open in general in terms of how you define your partner to sort of reflect what’s really going on in society. So that’s nice to see some of those changes.
One of the things I think is interesting is, you know, when we look at some of the research from “Women Don’t Ask” that Harvard base book, the author is escaping me right now, but she talks about how women are afraid to ask for more salary or what are the policies to sort of empower people to understand what is standard in the industry, what policies are going to support the family best and then check out if those policies are in alignment when you’re shopping around for assignments.
Sundae: What else can a HR do to really reduce the stress on the assignee or help them be accepted in a local culture that might not be as equality based when it comes to gender.
Cathy: Well, I think that one of the things they can do is introduce this new assignee, female assignee, to the host country as the expert. They are the expert that’s why they’re being sent there regardless of gender. So that when they get there, they are seen as the expert they’re not seen as female or male, they’re seeing as the expert in whatever their synthetic job they’re sent there to do. That’s really a big one.
Also, I think they need to provide diversity and cultural training not only for the assignee and the family and spouse, but also for the colleagues and that host location, because there’s a lot of stereotypes and there’s a lot of generalizations. So help them vet through what those are to welcome that person as best they can to do the best job that they can.
I think communication, I mean that’s in every area of our lives, communicate. And we hear that all the time and a lot of times we live in our heads. So I think you know on the other hand, also the female assignee needs to ask, I think you brought just brought that up, but ask for what they need, and it’s okay to ask for that. Look men ask, I don’t know what the percentage is, how many more times than women? And what are they going to say? They’re going to say yes, or they could say no. But many times the way men asked or negotiate for raises they usually get them. Women think about “Well do I deserve this and am I worth this?” We have all those things that maybe good girls don’t ask. I don’t know what it is, but the percentages are staggering on how many more times a man ask for something than a woman in a job.
Sundae: Right, and what we know from the book I mentioned, Women Don’t Ask, tit equates to a quarter of a million dollars by the end of your lifetime.
So you mentioned that cross-cultural training, I really agree on, that you can arm your assignee with intercultural competencies so that they can neutrally understand why they might get resistance from someone or how to work with the cultural differences and bridge that gap. So absolutely your employee should be supported in that way.
I would totally say the same thing, if you can have your on the ground staff speak the same language like understand the key cultural dimensions, understand where their gaps are, because that’s what’s going to help people work together. And what I love about that is it’s not personal, it’s not like “He’s arrogant,” it’s more like “Oh, they’re more direct” or “They really prefer equality.” It gives you such a neutral way of looking at your teamwork that can really reduce conflict and misunderstanding. So I would totally support the case of both sides should get a language, a way to see culture in a way that’s more nuanced than stereotypes or assumptions or attributing things to personality.
The one thing I would add to that, some of the women that I know they’re on assignment, I admire them so much. I mean, I know women who are off in the Congo, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Latin America, from every continent and every shape size and color and they’re out there changing the world. And so what I would add is that they’re working on their leadership, their team. They’re working on getting the work done, they’re working on their intercultural competency.
So if you’re the female assignee listening right now, what are you doing to work on your resilience, so you don’t burn out right? Are you on endurance mode where you’re go go go go go, or are you doing enough for yourself to stop and refuel, so that you can continue to perform at top level long-term. That’s the one thing I would add for, you know, international assignees. Who cares what your gender is, when you’re managing that level of complexity that it’s definitely worth investing in resilience.
Cathy: Absolutely, and I think there’s other things that are good to do to keep you in check, for both men and women as you mentioned. Joining expatriate groups. It’s a good way to unwind and really to vent, everybody’s going to have issues whether you’re at host or home country. That’s a good opportunity to talk to other people, they may be experiencing some of the same things that you are. Maybe they’ve gone through it and they can offer suggestions, perhaps you find a mentor in that new location that can kind of show you the ropes, they could say “Hey how did you do this?” or “How should I do this?” or “What are your suggestions?” I think going it alone is very tough and very isolating, so I think if you can join a group of like-minded individuals, if you can find that. Or maybe it’s just connecting, maybe you had a mentor back in your home country and maybe he’s just having a quick Skype call a check-in call. So I think having a support group is really important, because you mentioned those women and all those remote locations that’s is really tough.
Sundae: Yeah, and you just absolutely supported by was saying about that resilience isn’t something that you build on your own, it’s done in community, it’s done with support. So that’s really central, if you feel isolated, I think that’s really important. If you feel isolated then ask yourself “What am I doing to connect with people that are in my community?” That would be a shoulder to lean on, to have a sparring partner or even to vent with so you don’t feel alone.
And I don’t know how many times I hear people say to me all the time when they realize that what they’ve been going through is normal. They always say “Oh, I’m not alone.” They just can’t believe that they’re not alone. I don’t know why they don’t realize that they’re going through what so many others are going through.
Cathy: Yeah, that’s a good question, why do you think that is? Do you think that that was not brought to their attention before they went on assignment through HR or their manager?
Sundae: You want to know what I really think about that? This is what I really think, I think everybody’s so happy at pick up and drop off, everybody is so okay at the water cooler. Like, “How are you?” “I’m fine.” No, you’re not fine.
I have been doing this for too long to know that the people that you think are fine, I am doing air quotes with my fingers right now, are not fine. Because this is hard, because this is complex and we all have ebbs and flows and I see it all the time, I see it in my own life, I see all my clients, this makes us up level the way we show up on so many facets. So I don’t believe everybody is fine, but nobody’s talking about it. Right and it’s okay to not be fine, it’s okay to say “This is going well, and wow this is hard.” But I don’t see those honest conversations happening in passing in the hallways or at the pick-up and drop-off.
So that’s my honest opinion.
I hear that in coaching, people will dump that out in coaching. And that’s the other thing, people don’t want to bring it up at work because they don’t want to be flagged by HR as a non resilient employee.
So that’s that is what I think is that the biggest challenge to Global mobility and HR, is how can you support your people in a way that they can be completely honest without them being flagged. Because I know what people share in one-to-one private coaching with me that’s confidential, is not the same that they would share in a group face-to-face training where their colleagues are present, right? Because they don’t want to call themselves out.
I have some ideas on that, it’s a whole nother subject, but that’s what I think is going on.
Cathy: Yeah, well that makes sense, that’s if you’re going there in some type of leadership position and on top of that you’re female, you don’t want to be seen as weak, but we do have some very good problem-solving skills.
Sundae: I was literally shaking my head left and right when you were saying we don’t want to be seen as weak. No, it’s like you you want to show your strength.
Cathy: And here’s the interesting thing, I did a panel discussion, you know for women’s history month, and we had a lot of audience participation, and right now we have the largest age gap in the workforce. So we have now generation Z coming in, and we still have people in their sixties in the workforce. So it’s almost five generations I think. So somebody that’s been in business was in the audience, I think probably about 30 years she’s been in this business, said that women should be very professional in the boardroom, they should not show their emotions, they should be very businesslike. Well, there was a younger member of the audience that piped up and she said, “I’m sorry, I totally disagree with that, I am who I am. I bring my emotions to the table and that’s who I am.” So it’s really interesting, I think that this millennial group that’s coming in is not going to have some of the issues that maybe different generations have. I even see it in the gender differences and you know same-sex relationships, they don’t think twice about it. They just say, “Oh there’s George” or “There’s Susie”, it’s not as big an issue. And I think that’s going to be wonderful to bring that into, not only international relocation, but into everyday work situations. Which we already see happening in Silicon Valley with all the new tech companies right?
Sundae: But when we take that to a cross cultural situation, then it gets pretty complex right? Where those boundaries are not as easily crossed, and I know that in Burkina Faso one of the things that I learned is that an expression of emotion was actually not looked upon positively, you know that you that you are respected when you can maintain your emotions or contain your emotions. So to that younger woman in the crowd, I would encourage her, if she is going on assignment abroad, to think about how is she going to do the navigation of what she naturally wants to do and show up as a leader? And how will she marry that with the cultural expectations of the people that she’s leading? It’s not that easy is it?
Cathy: No, it’s not and that’s a really good point, your point about how important cultural awareness is.
And I think it’s also our responsibility for those that go on assignment. How how do you honor that culture where you’re going to be? Because it is an honor, people love their culture, they are so attached to their flag, their country. You want to honor that before you go, what can you learn about them? How can you make everybody feel welcome so that they make you feel welcome as well? That’s really important.
Sundae: Yeak, it can get tricky.
So one of the things I wanted to bring up about what we talked about, what can HR do and what can the assignee do when we look at how gender may be seen as a barrier. There could be assumptions that are made that are not true. And one one small tip I could offer is, this is really about identity. We are complex, you’re more than your gender, you’re more than your national passport, you’re more than your age, etc. And what I would encourage, people who feel like they are being seen as a woman in a negative way, you can negotiate that how you present yourself. As you said you might emphasize your professional identity, or you might emphasize your national identity. Find an entry point that people connect with, something where that feels less threatening to them so they can see you professionally.
What I do know from the research on fault lines with mixed teams that at the beginning of a team, it’s nice for people to know what your qualifications are and what you’re like, what you’re best at, what they can go to you for professionally before they start knowing you personally. So that they see you in that expert role, in that professional role. And that might be again someone’s natural instinct of wanting to get to know people personally, that it’s really okay to let the professional come first so that they understand where to put you professionally before before you get to know like the more intimate details. Again it depends on the cultural clash.
Cathy: Yeah, so that’s really a good point, because I spoke to a gentleman who works for a large company in the United States. He was talking to one of his employees who works in a different state and his employee is Muslim and he was asking him, he said the the employee said “I’m taking off these days for a religious holiday” and the manager said “Well what is that? What can you tell me about that?” Well, the employee got super uncomfortable. So, you know, that would have been a good training for him, the manager, for cultural nuances and things like that.
So it really is a fine line, I think respect goes a long way. If you have any any questions, if you find yourself in an awkward position, respect and understanding of the other person goes a long way.
Sundae: And this is the tricky part, is we can’t understand someone else unless we have a really good grasp on their cultural context. We just can’t, we can’t assume that someone would tick like we tick. I mean, I’ve had too many years abroad and too many a surprising situations to allow myself to expect that a contract is really a contract or that people will give notice when they say they’ll give notice or whatever, things that I would see even as unethical could be a normal cultural practice. So it really asks people to uplevel how they’re showing up with their Intercultural competencies.
Sundae: We just have a few minutes left, we talked about this really smashing through the assumptions that people have, that what we know is that from the research, there’s no difference between male and female expatriate effectiveness. We’ve got crappy female expatriates, we’ve got crappy male expatriates, we’ve got high performer females, we got high performing males. We need to break the assumption that their success rate might be dependent on gender, we need to break the assumption that they may or not be interested. We’ve said it, we need to really ask and put it on the table instead of deciding for them.
What else do you think is important for women who are international assignees to keep in mind or for HR, so that we can truly support moving the needle on this 16 and 25% to get to more equality.
Cathy: Yeah, so that’s a good question, again don’t assume because they’re women they’re not going to be interested in an international assignment. Now women, don’t forget to raise your hand, let your manager know, let whatever groups you’re working in know that you are interested in an international assignment.
Develop those mentor relationships, try to find somebody if you can, within your company that would mentor you with your goals. And that’s another good point, make sure you have a goal and find out what you can do to work towards that, what kind of support can you get from your company.
That also helps you get to these international positions because the manager often is going to be the one that hears about these openings or knows about the expansion of their company.
We did talk about, for HR to make sure they do select the best person regardless of gender for that job and offer a lot of details on that host location so people can make informed decisions about that and they can figure out what the challenges will be in that location so they can talk about it and think about it before they actually move.
Sundae: Yeah, and I think especially, you know, when there’s issues of security especially gender related violence for example, I think it’s really important for the organization to say “Hey, we have some employees working in that region now, here’s their name and why don’t you hop on the phone and ask your questions and see what concerns you have.” So they can hear from someone on the ground and ask those questions that are on their heart and mind that they might not feel comfortable asking in a more formalized contact, so helping people get on the ground information.
I have to say after living, you know, when we decide to come to South Africa my advice is, do not Google violence in South Africa, no one would ever come here. But it is different when you when you talk to people who live here and you’ve lived here, you understand it’s not as terrifying as Googling about it makes it seem. So definitely reach out to locals.
There’s a lot here and I mean, this is honestly just the very surface of the conversation. For me Cathy, I think it’s really important that why don’t we just raise awareness like “Hey, why is it only 25% of the international assignees are women” like as a corporate entity we need to really look in that there’s a lot of great research that’s being done. And what can we do from a corporate perspective to break down those barriers so that we can have an equally effective workforce side by side and really plan for succession planning so we have the diversity. Because our consumers are going to be female, right? We need male and female representation so that our products are reflected, the balance is in the team all of that.
I think the other thing is really the empowering side for the assignee. “What can I do so that I can reduce any uncertainty that I have”, any self-doubt that might be happening and really look at those positive role models. When I think of my friends who are women who are on lead assignment, they are some of the strongest, most capable, most professional women I know and we need to see them to know that it’s possible.
Cathy: That’s a good point.
Sundae: So that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to bring you back and talk about it.
So thank you so much.
Is there anything else that’s on your heart and mind that you think either the assignee or the Global Mobility community needs to consider?
Cathy: Well, I think for the assignee, focus on your attributes as women, you know, you’re flexible, we’re problem solvers, we generally have great interpersonal skills and we are inclusive, we like to bring people in in a collaborative manner. So playoff those skills when you accept an assignment and you go to those locations.
I think that’s a real plus and I think actually your strength is challenged when you accept an assignment and I think I would say almost all women that I know that have been on an assignment rise to that occasion. It’s a great opportunity for growth, personal growth.
Sundae: Yep, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing.
So again, where can people find you Cathy if they’re interested in knowing more about what you do and the organization that you’re with.
Cathy: You can come check us out at www.living abroad.com.
Sundae: Okay, wonderful Cathy I will also put your details in the show notes.
Thank you for being here.
Again, this is just the tip of the conversation. We hope that you walk away thinking about where you’re at.
If you are in the global mobility space ask yourself “Wait a minute, what is it with this 25%? What can we do in our organization to break down that barrier?”
If you’re a leader of an international expatriates group be very mindful whether you are believing these assumptions or if you’re checking your assumption so that you don’t leave a qualified participant at the table that could really be out there doing the work.
And if you’re an assignee think about what you can do to make your assignment as successful as possible.
So there you have it folks, touching the surface on female International assignees.
I’m going to leave you with the words from Vance McNulty in their 2014 article in the Journal of International Studies of Management and Organization. They say that the under-representation of women in international assignments represents not only a breach of ethics and fairness but also represents an inefficient use of a multinational firms talent pool in the face of increasing global competition.
So if that isn’t reason enough to pay attention, I don’t know what is.
Thank you, you’ve been listening to Expat Happy Hour, this is Sundae Bean.
I’ll leave you with two quotes from women that you might know as leaders Sheryl Sandberg says “If more women are in leadership roles will stop assuming they shouldn’t be.” And in the words from Margaret Thatcher “Don’t follow the crowd let the crowd follow you.”