Expat Investment: Male or Female?

Female expatriates are more prominent than they were in the 1980s. Yet, men still dominate the expatriate market, particularly in positions of leadership. Why is this?

Is it a question of investment, where men are believed to bring a company a far greater return for smaller input, or instead is it a question of culture? Hoftstede’s ‘power distance’ shows that countries with a low power difference such as Denmark or Austria are more willing to accept women into leadership positions than high power difference countries with rigid hierarchical structures such as Japan or Saudi Arabia.

The country clearly plays a significant role in the decision for who is the best investment. Assessments need to be made for whether either gender will gain the same amount of respect from co-workers. A female in a leadership role should be consulted and cooperated with just as much as an equivalent male, but this is not always the case. There have been many examples of leading female expats, particularly in Arabic countries, who have been bypassed purely because of their gender. This isn’t, however, always the case. Quite often how local men treat their local female co-workers is far different from how they would treat a female expat. Either she is treated based on her position, a high-ranking professional, or there is confusion over how she should be approached as she is so far removed from their culture. Expecting to completely change a foreign culture is unfeasible, so the decision for investing in an expat needs to be based on a capability for adapting to change, regardless of gender.

The job itself might require qualities, particularly in a place of different culture, which could leave one gender as preferable to the other. The workplace could be aggressive and require masculine qualities of assertion and risk, or it could require more feminine qualities of the nurturing of cooperation and relationships. As Deborah Tannen noticed, the female commitment to ‘rapport’ over ‘report’ has often left female expats very successful. Yet, these are only gender stereotypes. The talent of the individual is ultimately more important.

An expat assignment isn’t just a question of career. Given the length of many assignments, the lifestyle of the expat becomes just as consequential in the decision. There may be issues pertaining with what they can and can’t do in their new country – for example in the Middle East a woman may not be allowed to drive a car, so travelling to work independently could be difficult, though some women may be happy to deal with this. The gender distinction abroad could cause personal difficulties for men and women – it is up to you to assess if this is the case. Family concerns are the number one failure for international assignments. It’s typically more common for a father to be willing to work abroad, away from his family, than a mother, but if they’re best for the job then surely the investment into relocating the entire family is worth it? Many families have found the move beneficial. The 2013 HSBC Expat survey showed that 65% of expat children based in Germany have noticed a significant improvement in quality of life. Though there remains the question of the spouse or partner’s career. It still remains far more common for women to leave their job for the sake of a husband’s career than vice versa. Once again, this isn’t a clear distinction between the genders.

In the decision over whether a male or female employee is best for an expat investment, there really is no clear answer. Gone is the age where gender roles were so distinct and employers now have to focus more on what the job demands of the individual and the individual’s capabilities. Gender is no longer a deciding factor of the equation.

Posted in categories: Culture & Languages, Expats