You had to do it because you had to work. Yeah, you did. Maybe not for financial reasons, but what were you supposed to do? Just trail along from country to country as an accompanying spouse, letting your skills and employability rust? No, thank-you.
Now, your resume looks like Swiss cheese. A collection of unfulfilling, short-term jobs, gaps from the multiple transitions, and nothing that even remotely speaks to your passion or abilities.
As if living THIS difficulty isn’t enough, another bristly truth is that, while perfectly explainable, your history is unattractive to recruiters who’ll pass on you in exchange for the less complicated option.
Serial movers come up against unique employment barriers.
And this week, it’s my pleasure to welcome Yvonne Quahe for a frank dialogue about the professional disadvantages faced by accompanying spouses. As a lead for the World Bank Group Family Network, an HR facilitator, coach, and author of forth-coming book “Whose Career, Yours, Mine or Ours,” Yvonne’s proven tips help dual-career couples achieve fairness and avoid resentment.
What You’ll Learn in this Episode:
- The forever student
- Penniless & powerless after expat divorce
- How a man’s career still takes precedence
- Recalibrating in a third country
- When it’s better to be single
Listen to the Full Episode
Featured on the Show:
Are you pulled to entrepreneurship but unsure if your idea is viable? Do you have several revenue-generating talents, but you’re undecided which one would make the best fit as a business? Find out in this free, live-and-interactive webinar co-hosted by Sundae Bean and Amel Derragui from Tandem Nomads. Sign up right here, and let’s make it real.
- For aspiring coaches or coaches who want to serve expats, don’t miss: Expat Coach Secrets.
- Grow a successful portable business with Sundae and Amel – Join the free virtual workshop
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- Expat Happy Hour EP 196: Not the entrepreneurial type – Listen now
- Expat Happy Hour EP 157: Expat women on lead assignments – Listen now
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Full Episode Transcript:
Hello. It is 9:00 am in New York, 3:00 pm in Johannesburg, and 8:00 pm in Bangkok. Welcome to the Expat Happy Hour. This is Sundae Schneider-Bean from www.sundaebean.com. I am a solution-orientated coach and intercultural strategist for individuals and organizations. I am on a mission to help you adapt and succeed when living abroad and get you through any life transition.
In a 2019 McKinsey study it was done with over 35,000 US professionals with spouses or live in partners they found that 89% of women and 70% of men are part of a dual-career couple. In the UK, the working families report finds that 75% of couples with two children have both parents at work. But when I look at expat circles, I just don’t see those high numbers.
But it makes sense, doesn’t it? When we look at the research from www.expatresearch.com, they document that for more than 25 years. The dual-career issue has been the most common cause of assignment refusal and a major factor hindering trailing spouse adjustment. The risk for the individual is that if they do agree to relocate they become this serial mover and that means massive barriers to their employment.
It’s hard to get work permits, labor markets aren’t very excited about, you know, translating qualifications. No one wants to hire someone who’s going to leave after two to four years and there are language barriers and and and. For the organization when there’s a dual-career couple being sent, they might get nervous as well because they want to make sure that the person that they have employed has their head fully in the job and isn’t the one making all the sacrifices if they have a family to raise.
But this is something I’m super passionate about and I know it doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be a dual-career domestically or one person gives up their career if you move abroad. I’m so passionate about that. I’ve coupled with Amel Derragui from Tandem Nomads and we together are working on projects to help support dual-career couples inevitably. We both believe that entrepreneurship is a way to circumvent this serial short-term employment we’re being forced to say no to life abroad.
So before I welcome my very special guest today on the topic of dual-career couples be sure that you listen to the end or check out the show notes where I share more details on the free workshop that I’m doing in partnership with Tandem Nomads this week on how to find the right business idea for you. Because this could be the answer to that dual-career career couple dilemma you’re facing.
We give straight up advice and truth-telling on what needs to happen to go from, “okay I’ve got some ideas” to a business that’s viable, profitable and portable. This is honestly something that keeps me up at night. How can I support more people to live abroad without regret? Individuals who would flourish if they could make it as a dual-career couple and I’m really curious to hear from our special guest today, if it’s something that keeps her up at night as well.
This is all part of the six weeks behind the scene series that I promised you. So we are just getting started and I can’t wait for you to dive in and be part of this every step of the way.
It is my honor to welcome Yvonne. the World Bank Group Family Network Lead. She’s a facilitator, coach, and HR professional and author of the forthcoming book Whose Career, Yours, Mine or Ours. Yvonne, welcome to Expat Happy Hour.
Yvonne: Thank you. Thank you Sundae. Well I have to say you ask the question. Does it keep me up at night? I guess the answer would be yes. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered to write the book, Whose Career. Yours Mine or Ours
Sundae: Right absolutely. Let me tell our listeners a little bit more about you. Your experience is personal and professional, you’ve designed and developed workshops that support dual-career families to ultimately increase the capacity for the World Bank Group, to attract and retain talent, which is really important on the organizational level.
But I know you’ve walked in the shoes of your clients, you’ve lived abroad, you’ve been away. In professional and you’ve been an accompanying spouse in locations like Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines, UK, and now the USA right? I know you get it.
Yvonne: Yes, I mean I do because basically my clients tell me that you know often when I’m talking to them they look at me and then they go, “well, you know what I mean.” And that when it comes to working with people, it’s a really powerful tool, I wouldn’t say tool, an asset really because in the power of shared experience. I mean, it’s an experience that’s common to us.
You experience and mine is not identical, having to decide whose career it is. Moving from country to country, having a fixed time frame. Those sort of things are common to both of us, the details are different.
Sundae: Right. And your book title freaks me out, like what if the answer is yours and not mine. It’s scary.
Yvonne: The truth is, you know, is to be honest. If you look at the McKinsey numbers you brought up, how many people work before assignment and how many continue to work after assignment, I think if I would remember my research correctly, I think it was 57% are still looking for jobs and I think 17% are actually landing jobs. And when you actually look at that, I think we start out, and I say “we” and that’s primarily women, and we’re going to talk about that later I know.
I was really struck. I have a present workshop running and I asked them all this week, “How many of you have had conversations before you left about leaving?” And more than three quarters said they did. But, on the flip side, the frustration that they felt, and the majority of them were women. Women who are highly qualified and you wonder, what the conversation was about.
I’m just going to pop in here with an aside after I recorded this episode with Yvonne we joked about how maybe it should come with a warning label because some of the things that she addressed would be maybe too radical for some people.
And for people who have healthy relationships already challenging conversations, and for people who’ve got cracks in their relationship, it could cause a split. So there you got it. There’s a warning label.
My invitation to you is to listen to Yvonne and when she says it gets to the heart of the matter, just hold that space for a while and think about whether they get to the heart of the matter for you.
Sundae: So there’s so much I just want to dive in but before we do, you are working on this book around bringing the issues of dual-career families. Can you help the listeners understand how did you come to do what you do now?
Yvonne: Well actually, interestingly enough, I started doing it many many years ago because I was so frustrated that I couldn’t fulfill my career ambitions. I mean I actually – you can read the details in my book, I was actually lost the first few years after graduation. I mean I was sort of raised to believe that you had to do really well and be successful.
But I really didn’t know how to be successful and successful at what? And so in the beginning I did a lot of jobs that I really wasn’t really good at and hated every minute of it. Until one day I actually went to see a career counsellor and I always say it was the best $100 I paid in my life. And she looked at me and said, “Do you want this to happen to you again?” And I said “Oh yes, I don’t think we’ll be in any one country for a specific length of time.” And she actually many years ago said that entrepreneurship is what you should go for because you’ll always be in the driving seat.
To cut a long story short, if I hadn’t had my own business in the US, I chose not to start a business because we were here initially, for my husband to work at the International Monetary Fund. We were only supposed to be here for two years, well as you and I know, at that time, I thought, “Well, I can’t possibly start a business.” It’ll take, you know, six months to get my work permit. So what else do I have left?
And so I decided to take my knowledge and my expertise and that’s how I landed in the World Bank.
Sundae: Well you’re lucky because it isn’t a lot of people that can get something in house, and I don’t want to – the podcast I just released is about “Not the Entrepreneurial Type.” And I talk about how I didn’t think I was the entrepreneurial type in 2013, in fact I told my husband flat out that I wasn’t.
I really do think that it is the answer for dual-career couples to find security on the rotational life – every 2 – 4 years. If one business is fixed to an organization and has the hierarchy and the fixed holidays and all that bureaucracy and the other one is flexible entrepreneurship, that’s the ideal. I think that is the answer but of course it’s not for everybody. But I think a lot of people underestimate how capable of learning what you need to learn to run your own business.
I think the word “entrepreneur,” we think it’s like some super sleek business suit wearing person on Wall Street, but it’s not really what it is.
Yvonne: I think anybody can learn and I do like the idea of entrepreneurship and I think the post-COVID world has been extremely kind to entrepreneurs. Now, even now, the most resistant people have been dragged into the world of virtual kicking. This immediately opens up a whole range of opportunities for accompanying spouses and partners to test their expertise.
I am a great believer in what Herminia Ibarra talks about career experiments and learning by doing and then you only know what you want to do because you learn it while you are doing it. She talks a lot about career experiments with the hypothesis and you test your business and you test, do you like it? And you look for the data and you look at the comeback. How is it landing with people? The thing I’m telling you is try.
Sundae: Absolutely. People are so stuck in their head. They want certainty, they don’t even want to try it until they know it will be successful. But you don’t know until you’ve actually done the work. I just want to point out what you have done here. You actually reframed entrepreneurship in these words. I don’t know if you did this consciously or not but you said, “Sharing expertise through remote work.”
You mentioned remote work and sharing expertise. I think it’s a much less intimidating way to think about having your own thing abroad that generates revenue.
Yvonne: No, well I can’t claim to have thought about that, it came out as I spoke but that’s the way I see this current opportunity.
Sundae: I love that! it’s a really important position at the World Bank because it impacts individuals’ lives, it impacts professional direction and it impacts the organisation. Can you say more about what is most important to you when it comes to the topic of dual-career couples.
Yvonne: Okay, when it comes to dual-career couples, as you said earlier, the numbers show it is largely women. And so I particularly am passionate about helping women find their voice because when you look at the projectrity, when you look at what happens to an accompanying partner, it can be very painful because the rate of divorce is quite high.
I have seen many many women who have followed their partners for 20 – 25 years and then 25 years later the marriage snaps and they have followed their partners and not continued their career and they’re virtually penniless and powerless. Expat divorce is not kind to the accompanying partner. So for me it’s helping women find their voice because I think it affects even high performing women who are not moving internationally.
We start off with dual-career couples and we won’t add in the mobility just yet, the research has shown that a lot of high performing women are leaving because they find it hard to juggle career and womanhood. And basically both men and women have made the assumption that when push comes to shove, it’s always the men’s career that takes precedent.
Sundae: The finances back it up. Often when you look at the research on what men earn versus what women earn. If you go on a purely logistical, or logical way, that earner is higher than the other person, and it’s often about gender discrepancies and professions and lots of other factors. The men are often the ones earning more. It’s hard to argue against that.
Yvonne: Yes, it’s hard to argue against that but that’s why I think the discussion between the couple is absolutely key to gender equality. So you know, there is so much talk about gender equality on an organizational level, but I think gender equality begins with you.
Do you believe that you have the same rights within a partnership to pursue a career? Do you or don’t you? You need to have a discussion about it and go into it knowing, yes, his earning more so for now this is the way we’ll do it. But that’s the other thing I see with expat partners, is that once they start on that road of becoming an accompanying partner, they don’t see that they can extricate themselves from it. Because there are different career models and you can take turns taking and there are many ways if you want to continue on the career trajectory, I’m talking about, not the entrepreneurship one.
It’s saying, “Okay, now you lead and you make the choices because it’s good for your career and next time I do.” That’s how you become “our” but in this notion of “our” it has to be an equal investment. Avivah Cox who is the gender expert and who’s written a lot says your partner’s role in your career success is absolutely crucial. And she’s saying to high-flying women or women in general, a truly supportive partner is key and if you can’t find one, it’s better that you’re single.
Sundae: What I’m hearing that there has to be a mutual investment. That both are happy. We went real fast from logistically how do we make this work to a larger problem of working for equity among genders, that is important and has to absolutely be centred. And what’s challenging with that is there’s so many different cultural models in which people organise their families, and the way hierarchy is seen and which roles are sort of supported within those cultural or familiar structures.
It’s so hard to have one way, especially, you know within a global organization. How do you support? How do you support that? What do you think some of the mistakes are that people make when they agree to move abroad for the lead assignment? I’m hearing from you already, “They didn’t have a conversation”
Yvonne: I think they do have conversations, but they don’t touch the heart of the matter and the heart of the matter is career prioritization. That’s where the rubber hits the road, that is also where conflict and what you mentioned about cultural norms, from the expectations, the couple dynamic that is the hard one that can be a very uncomfortable and difficult conversation.
So because of that, it requires an emotional capacity and a relationship capacity actually to have that kind of discussion. So therefore it’s easy then to default to the finances. How can you argue with this? We’re going to be 30% better off. So there is no argument. Well on one level there is no argument up to a point. But what is the price of it? Is it our relationship? What if the price of it is my self-esteem?
Is it worth the price of my resentment? Or that I’m so angry with you because you made me do it! I mean I have talked to women who have said it’s taken 10 to 15 years for them to forgive their husbands. And the point of forgiveness of their husbands is usually a reframe when they understand they are actually free. And if he earns that much, well basically can roll their business losses.
They have the opportunity to choose how much time they want to have with their children. Now, if you can reframe the experience, it’s fine. The research will show you if you cannot reframe your experience, you will become angry and resentful. Because the trajectory of a relationship where one person (winner takes all) the other one is feeling depleted, at least emotionally.
Without recognition, I see a lot of people say, you know, “Everything is up to me.” I have to pack, I have to do everything and he just goes to work. Now, does he acknowledge that? I wouldn’t know that because you know, I’m not a couples therapist but judging from the level of frustration, I would say not by observation.
So I think not doing sufficient research on a very mundane level before getting to the deeper psychological aspect is insufficient in research.
Sundae: Right, because we’re logical beings, we’re psychological beings, we are emotional beings. So our financial needs need to be met but also our psychological needs, our relational needs all of those things need to be met. And I think that’s that is why then the argument of finance isn’t enough. That’s my answer to that.
You brought out some really important topics about resentment and self-esteem. I work with a lot of people through a program called Year of Transformation and oftentimes women have been on this road for 12 years, 15 years and they are really resentful and it’s like the last ditch effort before they say enough! Either with expat life or maybe even their relationship because they feel like they’ve sacrificed so much.
So in terms of finances, whenever a couple talks about the investment for something like that to turn around the resentment. I always say that a divorce is a lot more expensive or repatriation. Like these are things we need to acknowledge that we’re psychological and emotional beings and it’s not just an Excel spreadsheet that is going to be compelling for us in 2 years, in 5 years and in 12 years.
You know, you’ve given us some ideas from an individual or a couple perspective. I’m curious what you think organizations are getting wrong, when it comes to sending families abroad.
Yvonne: There was a time where I could have produced a list, but I’ve changed my mind about this because I’ve decided on thinking and looking at the research and things that there is no simple answer. So I don’t think organizations get it all wrong, but I don’t think they get it quite right either. And I think it lies with the fact that there is the real success factor that is really out of their control. Which is the partner.
If I’m obligated to you as the employer, I can give you support, but if these conversations don’t happen because they’re deeply personal (which is not the role of the organization). No matter what help I might give you, it helps a little, you know, it might grease it along but it doesn’t actually get to the heart of it.
So I think there are certain things organizations can do for instance, is to try to accommodate their talent management for instance. But then it also requires the employee to be proactive, to say, you know, “Where do you see my career going?” And if it requires rotation, these are the rotations I will do or I would like to come back to headquarters or a third country, I think a third country where you can recalibrate, where there are no restrictions for both partners is very important.
If you want to continue your career trajectory, if you’re not in business, because if I can say I can study, I can go to a country for discussion’s sake where my husband’s company needs him. I can study for three years, but the next assignment has to be somewhere where I can work because then I can’t study for six years. Because then I become unemployable. I just become a forever student.
Sundae: I would also really be interested for those who are listening. If you know of people who are doing cutting-edge work on supporting this, I’d love to hear from them and have a conversation online and offline about this because I think it’s really important and what’s so interesting is you talk about the heart of the matter. You also talked about gender equality.
Yvonne: I think you know, it’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”
I think that is true because when you think of who is giving up. High-achieving women are giving up their work. Why? Because they can’t manage a high-flying job and being mothers. When you look at expatriation, you look at rotations, who is the bulk of the accompanying spouses? Women.
Sundae: I think it’s really interesting. That’s one of the things I kicked off this series, you know series four of Expat Happy Hour with Gertraud Eregger and we talked about expat women on lead assignments in episode 157 really saying, “Hey, let’s shed light on the women who are doing it.” I have some very personal friends who are the women of the lead assignment and the men are the ones who are picking up the other activities, you know that need to go on and real life while doing their own careers. And it works and it’s amazing and they’ve got really equitable relationships and it is so possible.
But the visibility isn’t there. So I think that’s important too, for men and women to think, “Let’s put this person forward.” We need to also increase the visibility of women who are on assignments abroad and are successful and enjoying the balance of motherhood and leadership and all of that if we don’t see it, we can’t become it.
Yvonne: Yes. I agree. There are success stories, there are and I know some of them hugely successful, but when you look at that, there is one commonality and sorry to go back hopping into it, is that they are equally supportive of each other’s careers. And they are more than happy that the men support the women in it.
Sundae: So you’ve really, I don’t know if I want to say surprised me today, but you’re going to a level of depth further than I anticipated and there’s a couple times that you said to the heart of the matter and that’s what you’ve done, really well here today is helping us not just look at dual-career couples pragmatically.
Like you said, “turn taking” and entrepreneurship, etc, but saying, “Oh no, we gotta go way deeper than that.” And like you said get to the heart of the matter around gender parity and career prioritization. So thank you for putting that on our radar today. I think that’s really important to share and I can’t wait to hear from others in the community who are going to chime in on what they’re seeing.
It’s a huge invitation for couples who want to explore dual-career options to have those tough, but really critical conversations. Would you like to leave us with any last words based on your experience, personally and within organizations for dual-career couples?
Yvonne: If you look at the common pattern of successful couples here, Michelle and Barack Obama on their marriage, on their wedding evening in this documentary on CNN last night, there was a photo of their wedding and said, “Our future was unknown, but we would step in it together”
And I think that in many ways captures our expat life. We don’t know where the next rotation will be and with COVID I think we realize that we are living in the unknown. You’ve got to plan for the unknown, but I think what you need to know, or what you need to agree on is that you’re going to be stepping in it together.
Sundae: Wonderful. Thank you so much Yvonne for joining us today. It’s been eye-opening and we’ve gone deeper and further than I had expected and I love it. I love that we’re talking about the heart of the matter. I love that we’re talking about the invitation of going through that unknown path, but together, more balanced.
And that’s where we do have power as dual-career couples, if we start within the couple and then can advocate for our needs with the organization. So thank you very much for joining us on Expat Happy Hour.
Such fresh Insight from Yvonne and I’m definitely taking away a lot from today’s session and I’ve enjoyed how we’ve meandered in and out of very pragmatic ideas, two things that definitely get to the heart of the matter. And as I mentioned at the top of the show, I am so passionate about helping accompanying partners find their way when they are abroad.
If they are living the life with someone else who has a lead assignment, what can you do so that you can be all in and as I said, finding the right business idea might be what you’re looking for. So if you haven’t already signed up don’t miss a workshop that I’ll be offering with Amel Derragui from Tandem Nomads. It is how to find the right business idea for you because if you have that right business idea, maybe it’s that thing that will help you work remotely and share your expertise no matter where you are.
So don’t miss out this is not your typical webinar. We can’t wait to see you there. So go ahead and go in the show notes and sign up and if you miss this, then let me know because I’ve got even more in store.
All right, you’ve been listening to Expat Happy Hour. I will leave you with a quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “If you have a caring life partner you help the other person when that person needs it. I had a life partner who thought my work was as important as his and I think that made all the difference for me.”
My wish for you is that you can partner in your life if you’re looking to have a dual-career life abroad so that it makes a difference for both of you.
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