Dear Annie: I’ve been working at this company for about eight years (this is my first job after college), and lately I’ve noticed that my male peers are being offered assignments in our overseas operations, usually for six months or a year. It’s important to people’s career paths, because everyone at or near the top here has worked abroad. Now, we’re moving into Persian Gulf markets—Oman, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi—and I’d like to be sent to one of those countries to help out with logistics and marketing. The thing is, when I said this to my boss the other day, he hemmed and hawed and didn’t give me an answer. I can’t help thinking my being female has something to do with why he’s hesitating (as in, maybe he doubts that I’d be taken as seriously as a man in that part of the world). Any thoughts on how to address his concerns? — Ready to Go
Dear Ready: At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the first thing you need to do is find out exactly what his concerns are. Maybe your boss is reluctant to send you anywhere because he likes what you’re doing where you are, for example, or maybe there’s no one who’s ready to replace you. “You need to sit down with him and have a candid discussion,” says Brynne Herbert, founder and CEO of MOVE Guides, a company based in San Francisco and London that provides international relocation services to employers. “Find out exactly why he’s hesitating. It’s the only way to clear up any unspoken bias in the room.”
A few widespread biases are spelled out in a new study from PwC, based on a survey of 3,937 decision-makers at global companies in 40 countries. Although 77% of executives said international experience is a “critical skill requirement for advancement,” the study found that only 20% of corporate expats are female. Note to employers interested in holding on to Millennial talent: 71% of Millennial women say they want international assignments, and almost two-thirds (64%) say the opportunity is a key factor in deciding whether they’ll stay with their current company.
Although the reasons why so few women are sent abroad vary from one organization to another, the PwC report identifies several common threads. Managers often assume, for example, that women with children won’t want to move to a foreign country, so they steer moms away from those assignments. Yet 41% of the women who said they wanted to undertake an international assignment were parents, the report notes, compared with 40% of men.
Dispelling any needless worries your boss might have, says Herbert, means “tackling the issues explicitly, so you get them out of the way.” Originally from Massachusetts, she worked as an investment banker in Hong Kong, Singapore, and London before starting MOVE Guides. “Part of the negotiating process is acknowledging cultural differences, too, and talking about how you would deal with them,” she says.
Of course, that requires some in-depth homework on those cultural differences—which, by the way, are probably not nearly as tough an obstacle in the Middle East as your boss (or you) might think. While a few countries are a long way from treating women as equal to men (Saudi Arabia leaps to mind), others have joined the 21st century.
“I haven’t encountered any resistance based on my gender. It’s business as usual,” says Katie Struble, who travels frequently to Oman, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates as director of marketing for California-based solar power company GlassPoint. “I’ve found Oman and the other Arabian Gulf countries to be very progressive.” Female managers lead GlassPoint sales and engineering teams in Oman and Kuwait, she adds, and “our customers, which include national oil companies, also have women in senior leadership positions, overseeing teams of hundreds of men and women.”
That’s partly because most women in the region have equal access to education, with female college students outnumbering their male classmates in some places. Moreover, acceptance of cultural differences is a two-way street, Struble notes. “Many professionals in the Middle East attended university in the U.S. or the U.K., which provided exposure to Western cultures and social norms,” she says.
Deborah McArthur agrees that, if you do get the assignment you’re after, you’ll most likely do just fine. A longtime partner at Accenture who worked with financial-markets clients in the Middle East for 14 years, MacArthur is now retired and living in Morocco. “I haven’t faced any resistance” for being female, she says, either in her business career or now in North Africa. In fact, MacArthur adds, as a Western woman she has sometimes been “treated as an honorary man.”
Talkback: Is international experience important to advancement where you work? If so, have you pursued it? Leave a comment below.