(Back to ARTICLES)
Career Strategies for International Women
Dont leave your career behind when you move
By Mary van der Boon
(this article first appeared in the XPat Journal)
Success is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. While women make up fewer than 12% of expatriate executives, they do account for 85% of partners accompanying overseas assignees. The unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of these partners, regardless of whether or not they were employed before they went overseas, will not be able to find paid employment during their tenure abroad.
If you are one of these accompanying spouses, this does not have to mean the end of your career, however. With some careful planning, creativity and strategizing it is possible to make the best of your time abroad, and not wind up with a sizeable hole to fill in your CV upon your return, or to take with you to your next international posting.
The time to begin thinking about managing your career overseas is before your departure from your home country. If your partners company has no pro-active policy of spousal assistance, you shouldnt be surprised. According to recent surveys, only about 10% of all international companies provide career support to the assignees partner, and most of the existing programmes were established in response to long-term spouse advocacy, and not taken up spontaneously by the companies themselves. The Employee Relocation Council puts the figure for spousal employment assistance at 50% of all companies moving employees within the continental U.S., however, which means demand can have an impact.
You could do worse than to follow Harriet Rubins advice in her best-selling book for women leaders: The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women (Doubleday, 1997). "Women have avoided conflict for too long. They must wage war in their personal and professional lives to get what they want," maintains Rubin. Her advice to women everywhere? "Ask for everything. Women think their needs will be perceived, that they are obvious. Youll never know what you can get if you dont bother to ask."
The most successful, and enduring, of family support programmes is Shell Internationals Spouse Employment Centre. At the organisations recent 5th anniversary celebrations held at Centre headquarters in the Hague, SEC founder and manager Kathleen van der Wilk-Carlton mirrored the thoughts of many accompanying partners when contemplating an overseas move: "What does this mean for me? Its my move, too." The SEC helps Shell family members plan their overseas career strategies by offering careers guidance, job search planning, CV and interview skills as well as work permit information.
Ask Nathalie Brotchi, founder and principal of Net Expat, a careers counselling and placement service for expatriate partners operating in London, Paris and Brussels (and soon in Amsterdam), what she thinks of corporate HR attitudes to helping families relocate, and shell tell you many companies dont yet see the bottom line sense. Partners dont communicate their difficulties to the HR departments, so many companies dont feel the impact, or see the problem. An estimated 50% of all foreign assignments are refused, however, because of the dual career factor. Net Expat, a unique careers agency, guarantees that they will find acceptable employment for the accompanying spouse. How sure are they? "We offer real solutions. If we are not successful (and our failure rate is below 10%) then we charge nothing. An interesting new development? In our Brussels office, 40% of our clients are male trailing spouses. And we offer double value to the companies themselves: we will not only place their own employees spouses, we offer an extensive roster of skilled international expertise by listing job-seeking partners from other multinational companies and organisations."
The Right to Work?
There are other obstacles to developing your career internationally: the vast majority of countries (including such key expatriate target destinations as the USA, Brazil, France and Germany) only issue work permits on the basis of quotas and skills requirements. Presently, only the Netherlands, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Sweden, Venezuela and the United Kingdom grant automatic right to work to accompanying spouses. And denying the right to work, says international lobbying organisation Working Partners, is denying citizens a basic human right. Dr. Gill Mackilligin, International Co-ordinator for Working Partners, has this to say: "Employing spouses will give benefits to the employers of expatriates, the host country as well as to the families of expatriates. Presently, the spouses or partners of international corporate, government or non-governmental employees can be excluded from the workforce for most of their working life, often working hard for their spouses employer but without remuneration. The majority of these spouses are women. This is surely in violation of the Discrimination Convention of the International Labour Organisation."
Opportunity Instead of Problem
According to Michael S. Schell, CEO of Windham International, sooner or later the United States also will need to create a legal work immigration opportunity for the Americas. "The likely result will be that visas become more readily available to spouses of expatriatesbecause of both the greater value placed on talent and the large number of women in two-career families who are in the global work force. If barriers are lowered for working spouses, the effect will enhance the mobility of talent and enable organisations to staff the global opportunities. And so, my crystal ball indicates that having a career spouse will enhance global career potential because it puts two skilled people into the mobile work force at the same time. Organisations will have to develop programs and systems to address that as an opportunity instead of a problem."
Improve Your Skills Set
While work may be an impossibility, study is often not. Distance and on-line learning possibilities have changed the map for foreign assignees, even on remote postings. It is important, however, that you do your groundwork before your departure: will I have a (reliable) Internet connection? Do I need to produce diplomas or certificates prior to enrolment? Is there a summer or group session I am required to attend? Like Shell International, with its Spouse Vocational Assistance programme, will my partners company cover the costs of my study? These questions are often difficult to answer after you have relocated.
Volunteering is Good for the Soul
So until this labour legislation reform is enacted, what to do when you risk deportation by taking on paid employment? There are many different forms of payment, as countless expatriate partners have discovered. Volunteer work can offer satisfaction and rewards that are at least as valuable as monetary compensation. Besides the moral benefits of helping others, volunteerism in foreign countries offers another bonus. It can be excellent cultural adjustment therapy.
"Service work, like volunteering a few hours a week at a childrens hospital or just helping someone in need, is much more important to our mental health than we think," reports Dr. Kirsten Thogersen, a psychotherapist based in Beijing, who is presently writing a book about expatriate psychotherapy (Expatriate Press, 2001). "One of the reasons expatriates often suffer when they move is because they feel disconnected from their surroundings," says Dr. Thogersen. "To be connected with someone else by giving them some of your time and energy is the best possible protection against depression and other psychological reactions experienced by expatriates." Says the nets expatriate spouse expert, Robin Pascoe, "Many expatriate womens organisations in foreign countries organise welfare committees to allow members to channel energy, money and resources into local causes in a way that wont overwhelm them. Frontline volunteering is not for everyone."
Most experts agree: your career path needs constant work and attention in todays volatile employment climate (and this is equally true for partners in a dual career/international relationship and for single assignees, male or female). According to Electronic Career Strategist Wayne Gonyea, of Resume XPRESS: "To ensure career transition success, new and different activities must be engaged on an ongoing basis."
What you need to do to stay ahead
1. Ask yourself some soul-searching questions: What am I good at? What do I like doing?
Can I now relocate / travel easier than when the kids were younger? Can I work on a contract / interim / consulting basis? What skills do I need to update in order to stay current? How have my personal and family obligations changed over the years? Answer the questions, then make a future career plan for yourself. Try to think outside the box.
2. Consult a career coach, resume specialist, job placement agency to give you direction. Barbara Sher, best-selling author of I Could Do Anything if I Only Knew What it Was (Doubleday, 1994) may have said it best. "Failure to achieve our career ambitions does not result from a lousy attitude; rather from isolation." Dont be afraid to get help from professionals.
3. Keep your information up-to-date. There are many resources available, both in print and on the Internet. Fast Company magazine offers a plethora of information about careers in the new economy, as does Next magazine (in Dutch). Keep abreast of developments in your field.
4. Work on your resume. Keeping your CV up, polished and current means you are ready to seize opportunity when it presents itself. Whether work experience has been paid or volunteer is of no consequence: it can always be written up in a positive fashion that portrays your skills as desirable. Remember, careers consultants agree: "The resume must get past the gatekeeper whose job it is to screen paper out, not in. A resume is not intended to get you a job; its to get you a phone call inviting you in. Once that happens, you can rip the resume up; the resume has done its job."
5. Keep your career portable: Network and stay in contact with those who really know your capabilities. Make use of the many international organisations and online resources offering assistance to mobile men and women. Joanna Parfitt, editor of Woman Abroad magazine and author of A Career in Your Suitcase, recommends the following: compile a brochure showing what you can do; make sure to contain quotes and thank-yous from those youve helped; create and maintain a professional portfolio; and put together an irresistible web-site.
6. Dont underestimate the power of the Internet. Prepare an electronic resume and provide e-mail addresses for referees. Many companies accept open on-line solicitation.
7. Can your career be repatriated? Robin Pascoe urges all expatriate professionals and their partners to safeguard their future back home. "While your files, disks and other job paraphernalia may re-enter easily in a moving box, its often not as easy to move a career home. For many employees and their spouses, repatriation in general and resuming careers in particular can often be more difficult than going international. At least 25 per cent of returning employees leave their job within two years."
Woman Abroad magazine www.womanabroad.com
Robin Pascoe www.expatexpert.com
Shell International Spouse Employment Centre www.outpostexpat.nl/sec
Net Expat www.netexpat.com
Expatriate Press www.expatriatepress.com
Working Partners firstname.lastname@example.org, fax: +44 20 75898240
Resume XPRESS www.resumexpress.com
Employee Relocation Council www.erc.org
Worldwide Classroom Library www.worldwide.edu
International Centre for Distance Learning www-icdl.open.ac.uk
Fast Company www.fastcompany.com