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Challenges for Women Expatriates on International Assignments

Info: 5449 words (22 pages) Dissertation
Published: 29th Sep 2021

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Tagged: EmploymentInternational Relations


A significant growth in cross-border worldwide business activities driven by globalisation have augmented the importance of International Assignments (IAs) (Culpan & Wright, 2002). International mobility of workforce is getting widespread in multinational corporations (MNCs). It has become an uphill task to find right employees with specific skills and capability keen to relocate for multinational companies to gain success on their global business projects (Caligiuri & Cascio, 1998). As international competition intensifies, the expatriates assume a significant role of conducting business across diverse cultures. Multinational enterprises have to urgently expand the worldwide talent pool and consider female candidates possessing potential talent as compared to male counterparts (Xavier & Doris, 2014).

Menzies (2012) argues that due to the presence of ‘glass border’ the participation of women on international assignments in MNCs even today remains substantially low. Linehan and Scullion (2001) estimated that only 3% to 15% of expatriates are women on overseas assignments. The number of women pursuing a career in global organisations into higher management positions is growing (Peter & Lakshmi, 2017). Transnational corporations gain an advantage by hiring women which facilitate the expansion of company’s knowledge structure. Women can be associated as a valued and untouched source of human wealth for global enterprises.

Expatriate may be defined as an individual’s sent by a multinational enterprise on international assignments in foreign countries for a specific timespan (Xavier & Doris, 2014).  Peter and Lakshmi (2017), in their study, reported that it is a challenging task for MNCs to distinguish, captivate and keep hold of skilled expatriates to gain competency in this international environment. International projects are becoming more demanding which comprises working in diverse and risky cross culture environment with higher accountability. The expatriates must possess cultural awareness and unique skills to adapt and adjust in the host country.

Forster (1999) argued that there is the limited number of books focusing on the women’s role in international assignments. As compared to male, female on global expatriate projects are visible on accepting additional work and non-work task. This issue is worth for examining as the number of women is noticeably lesser out of the human resource pool for global assignments. Sharp (2018) have agreed that women managers are understated in IAs as selection process is ad-hoc and informal approach and there is a need to focus closer to explore more opportunities for selection of females in the international placement.

The research aims to address the challenges and barriers confronted by women expatriates on international assignments in their career advancement to senior managerial place. On a deeper level, the research paper attempts to obtain an improved understanding of the factors influencing women’s participation in IAs. The objective of this paper will be to spotlight the implications of various barriers for global human resource organization. The contribution of this research paper will be by contributing to emerging scarcity of female global managers willing to work on IAs. According to Linehan and Walsh (1999), nearly 15% of candidates decline the application for IAs because of the occupation of the partner’s. The numerous problems for instance family issues, relocation, repatriation and financial instability acts as a hurdle for appealing the employees. Menzies (2012) found that almost 25% of repatriate employees tend to resign from their companies less than a year of repatriation due to the loss of career in home country.

The literature review will study and examine the factors that act as a barrier for women to obtain global career opportunities. This would be a significant area of research, as the knowledge and expertise that women are endowed with act as an essential role towards the success of IAs for multinational companies.

In the subsequent sections, a review of the literature on women in international assignment will be studied in-depth that formed the basis for their selection by multinational enterprises. Following this review would further help in determining the challenges encountered by women in their global careers. Furthermore, it leads us to the discussion and recommendations that would conclude the research paper. Finally, outlining the future research prospects.

Literature Review

The review of literature discloses that the numerous research has been conducted on expatriate managers, however, the women’s position in global projects are not considered much (Menzies, 2012). Menzies (2012) study shows that family concern and gender discrimination are found to be the reason of the slower growth of women expatriates in the global market. It was also found that women expatriates are honoured for their performance as compared to male expatriates in North America. A study by Linehan and Scullion (2001) on female expatriates in Japan reported that American female expatriates were as effective as their male expatriates and argue that multinational enterprises can reap the benefit of widening the potential expatriate’s pool by including talented women managers. Similar to this view, Forster (1999) shows that women are inspired and successful in pursuing the international career as their male counterparts. However, in absence of company’s support, the chances of women to be nominated for IAs are very less. Linehan, Scullion, and Walsh (2001) argue that despite the implementation of European Union protocol to ensure equal work opportunities for women to gain equal pay, the number of women advancing their career at higher management designations has been very slow based on the 50 senior global women managers research conducted in Europe.

Caligiuri, Joshi, and Lazarova (1999), in their study, have proposed a model with four precursors namely, personality traits, organisational support, family support and host nationals’ attitude towards female expatriates for predicting the success of female international representatives. Fischlmayr (2002) claimed that there are numerous reasons why MNCs are unenthusiastic to send female managers on IAs, for instance, stereotypical view of personnel managers, cultural factors, gender-based stereotypes and self-perception of females. On the contrary, Van Der Boon (2003) suggested from their case study research comparing the management styles of  900 female to 900 male managers and career strategies adopted by women expatriates in international projects and analysed that women managers encountered the major barrier from within the companies. The research shows that women’s phraseology of leadership is significant in handling emotions and result-oriented at work, whilst their male managers are decision makers and involved in analysing business policies and planning strategies. MNCs have realized the need for requisite skills possessed by women for instance, intuitive and empathy and grabbed the attention of incorporating them into their labour force.

Culpan and Wright (2002) mention in their research study that researchers have been negligible on researching female’s viewpoint on their job satisfaction on global work environment, whilst researchers were more attracted on the success, cultural adjustment and accomplishment of expatriate managers. The research investigates the four key factors which include, distinct features and skills of female expatriate managers, the nature of job design in international assignments, global workforce policies of MNCs and cultural factors in the host country. On the other hand, Caligiuri and Cascio (1998) propose four variables such as individual characteristics, organisations supporting policies and practices, family adjustments and attitude of the host country as building blocks to predict the success of female expatriates.

Mathur-Helm (2002) examined the in-depth interview of 25 female expatriate managers from MNCs operating in South Africa and explored the challenges faced by female managers. She classified questions for the interview into four categories viz., social and family issues, work related issues, selection and gender discrimination issues and lastly, cultural and environmental issues.

Though the literature highlights the growing importance and opportunities of women expatriates in the international business environment. Most of the studies focus was on analysing the willingness of females in IAs as compared to males and discriminatory policies of companies. There is a need to emphasize the issue of women’s involvement as an expatriate to advance on their global career ladder as important.

Barriers related to women’s participation in IAs

The literature review reveals that the many studies have been conducted however, they lack in developing a broader model of barriers related to women’s participation in IAs (Menzies, 2012). The researchers have tried to study the constraints faced by women expatriates from individual and multinational corporation’s viewpoint, very few studies have scrutinized this from macro and interpersonal standpoint. In this following section, I would discuss four main factors, namely, macro, organisational, interpersonal and individual in detail to understand the barriers related to women expatriates on international assignments.

Macro Barriers

With the rapid intensification of globalisation and liberalisation, it has brought a tremendous change in the international business environment. Globalisation has increased the competition and impacted international human resource management to employ expatriate staff to undertake international projects by taking advantage of women workforce. Consequently, more women’s pursuing international assignments could be seen with an increase in globalisation in international marketplace. Further, cultural factors of host nationals are the major performer in which the women expatriate do her work. The foremost anxiety while sending female expatriates on IAs is whether the host countries nationals would be willing to work with them or not as business colleagues. Caligiuri et al. (1999) showed that the success of women expatriates is likely to increase in countries where females are well acknowledged for their work in organisations. However, there are countries in which the female expatriates have to face a difficult time at professional front and sometimes it becomes impossible for them to work where cultural issues, for instance traditional, regional or leadership constraints (Fischlmayr, 2002). Therefore, cultural factors are the factors that determine the acceptance of women in both home and host country. To support this statement, Caligiuri and Cascio (1998) found that women expatriates are well recognized if they were regarded as foreigners principally and subsequent as women. The culture of country being sent from also affects the decision of sending women expatriates on IAs. Mathur-Helm (2002) found similar outcomes in Western countries for example UK, America and Australia where more and more women are at higher positions in management with compared to rest of the world. Hence, the higher participation of women in IAs could be experienced in these countries. On the contrary, countries like Thailand, Japan and India where women’s are not encouraged working in management and do not send women on IAs. This means that these countries have masculine societies with the perception of male as breadwinners and female as homemakers. Therefore, it also indicates that foreign women being sent on IAs in these countries will face difficult times in managing and remain uncomfortable in the working environment.

Linehan et al. (2001) investigated that the Middle East and some parts of Asia such as Pakistan, Japan and India are believed to be unsuitable places for sending female global assignees. Hence, a major cause of not sending female in IAs is a heavy impact of cultural limitations on the women’s role in international business.

Organisational Barriers

The organisational barriers still exist and seem to affect the women expatriate’s involvement in IAs. The women expatriate managers pointed gender-based stereotypes, recruitment and selection barriers, the support provided by companies for women on IAs and type of industry.

The male model of career advancement acts a barrier for women expatriates. Women need to prove their worth to the organisation by staying highly competent and succeeding on their career ladder. In general, women are not evaluated and rewarded equally as compared to male managers. In the research by  Linehan and Walsh (1999), women expatriate managers need to face more challenging competitive such as more qualified, career driven and easily mobile enough when compared to male managers for being promoted to the senior managerial designation. Women are believed to come at the upfront of breaking the glass ceiling at first and secondly breaking the glass border and actively demanding the next career move rather than waiting for the opportunity to be offered which is very important. They are required to perform an additional task to struggle to remove the tagline of low performance held by the home country managers. Mathur-Helm (2002) states that female is anticipated to work for long hours and behave like males to adjust themselves in this male dominating society. The larger number of female in the pool of workforce to select from also increases their probability of selection in IAs (Fischlmayr, 2002).

Peter and Lakshmi (2017) point out that due to the deficiency of few females at the decision-making levels, the senior male managers select male candidates for international assignments. Women are left at home country and excluded from expatriate process dominated by biasness and informal selection procedure (Linehan et al., 2001). In many cases, due to the such myths that women are not interested in global assignments automatically rejects women professional managers (Adler, 1994). Thus, organisations that use informal selection model they won’t send women in IAs.

Organisations give little significance to predatory programmes and do not provide training on cross cultural skills mandatory for international expatriate managers victory. Training is very vital for female expatriates as it facilitates quickly adjustment and resist cultural shock. Linehan and Walsh (1999) reported that for stress management organisations should conduct training together with family members which act as pioneer supporters during international assignments. Menzies (2012) found that women’s could be encouraged for international assignments by organisations support such as male trailing spouse which were neglected by organisational policies. It was observed that women have higher expatriate career achievements due to the perceived organisational support as compared to male counterparts (Peter & Lakshmi, 2017).

Interpersonal Barriers

Interpersonal barriers also have an impact on women’s participation in IAs. It includes networking, mentoring, support from top management positions, similar male and female selection and women in-group and fitting perception of selection criteria.

Networking is very significant in international assignments to bridge the gap from being isolated to maintaining contact. It helps in career advancement such as promotions by creating awareness. Peter and Lakshmi (2017) found in their study that helped women expatriates in culture and lifestyle of host country and prepared themselves for work and issues in advance. According to (Fischlmayr, 2002) female gained jobs by engaging in professional networking which improved their capabilities to grab international assignments as selectors also relied on networking for selection of expatriate managers out of the pool of networking workforce. The importance of networking is emphasized as we move upwards to the top management designations as the number of jobs lessens. Formal networking is more profitable to learn and seek expert advice when compared to informal networks. This suggests that building a formal international network is advantageous for women which facilitates their way of getting position in global offices. Linehan (2002) highlighted that women could not extend networking beyond working hours because they don’t have time as compared to their men’s extend their networking by engaging in many options such as sporting and male bonding gatherings.

Mentoring is crucial for career advancement of expatriates. It helps in boosting the self confidence by discussing the problem area and formulating possible solutions at the same time. Linehan et al. (2001) stated that due to the shortage of women at senior positions in international business management, women are hesitant to discuss their issues of glass ceiling and gender discrimination with their male mentors. This means that due to the lack of mentoring women expatriates are not successful in obtaining IAs. Menzies (2012) has researched in his study that mentoring serves as a support to mentee who receive thorough developmental relationship through contacts and support from native land for career enhancement.

Fair selection between male and female managers has been the topic of debate for researchers. This can be explained by similarity attraction theory (Peter & Lakshmi, 2017). It has been clearly visible that managers give preference to the selection of similar subordinates. The existing managers are typically men and it is expected that same sex manager would be appointed prevents the probability of women going for international assignments. Thus, it is vital for organisations to guarantee that selection criteria of expatriate mangers in IAs is not biased.

Individual Barriers

Individual barriers consist various factors like dual-career relationship, family issue, child raising, length of assignment and individual characteristics and skills that impact the women for going on overseas assignment.

Family concerns is noteworthy, and it is a complex decision to relocate for female expatriates. The defeatist and conventional frame of mind of males which is associate with successful males management were also supposed to be negative to career progression by the women managers. (Caligiuri et al., 1999) has noted that incapability of the adjustment of family members in overseas is directly linked the performance and failure of women expatriate managers on IAs. In Caligiuri and Cascio (1998) study, it was found that family attributes for instance, family support can be related to the adjustment of women expatriates to projected work. Male partners may get easily caught in the web of isolation as mostly the trailing spouses would be women and it would be difficult for them to build their male network overseas. Adding to this, the difficulties of male spouses to acquire their work visas and force them take a non-acceptable role of homemaker (Forster, 1999). Therefore, it is an important decision for both male and female partners to survive in the international environment with an additional obligation of society     where males have a dominant role of “bread-earner”.

The findings from the study of Linehan and Walsh (2001) confirms that the women have the primary responsibility of performing household task and child-rearing, regardless of the long working hours in office. There are several complications related for women managers travelling with offspring, such as the taking care of them, their health anxieties, cross-cultural adjustment and finding international schools. The relocation of kids in early years of school would be a problem, especially when the children are not able to communicate in the regional language and express their views. Future research needs to be undertaken focusing on the effect of relocating abroad on family of women expatriate managers in IAs.

With the rise of dual career spouses issues, the main issue has been whether men will give up their jobs for female partners. Caligiuri and Cascio (1998) mentions that in societal context, it is a non-traditional practice for husbands to reign from their companies with the motive of their wives’ career. This can be linked to the spousal support and male partners adjustment and could be a burden on women expatriate mangers making their journey overseas more difficult (Mathur-Helm, 2002). Because of these causes women managers would reject IAs and human resource management fails to offer support for male trailing partners (Caligiuri & Cascio, 1998), for instance, in Linehan and Walsh’s (2000) study, female managers face difficulties  in finding a relevant job for their husbands, and to obtain work permits. Therefore, further studies need to explore their problems in larger aspects.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Overall, in this male-controlled society the women’s participation in IAs has still to go a long way as women experience numerous complications. The research paper has emphasized on the barriers that female expatriate managers encounter in international assignments. It is imperious for global corporations to proactively incorporate strategies to promote women empowerment to conquer the challenges faced by women and ensure their carer advancement same as their male managers. It has become imperative for organisations to facilitate promotion and moral support to females at all the level of the organisation. The gender discrimination should be acknowledged, and corrective actions must be taken proactively to abolish the unlawful practices. While tackling the individual barriers and organisational barriers, MNCs should instigate combined approach to address the issues through successful mentoring and developing official and unofficial networking approaches to ensure the success of international assignments. The global human resource management must ensure that women’s should be promoted to next level of hierarchy and their positions should be filled by selection of new talent and skilled female expertise into the organisation which would ensure a balance between the gender. Pre-departure and repatriation training programmes upgrade the effectiveness of women expatriate managers in the organisation. Organisations must concentrate on the determining the ways of managing the stress emerging out of handling the balance between work and family life. Psychological support can be an effective way to remain in continues connection with female expatriates during their transnational assignments overseas. International human resource management must induce participation of women by providing equal opportunities and positive action through crystalline policies, flexible working hours such as work from home arrangements, using communication technology like skype conference meetings and other working provisions. The multinational corporations has to withstand by buckling down the challenges and simplifying the career advancement of female managers at national as well as international level.

Some Recommendations

Multinational Corporations should look out for information related to the individual necessities and career ambitions of female managers who may be inquisitive in a job in international management. International human resource strategies could be elaborated to encounter the diverse requirements of female managers and refine the policies that are focused to gain clarity on women’s enthusiasm for climbing the career track.

During the tenure of global projects, it should be recommended to corporations to stay in consistent communication with the home-based corporation which could be simplified by mentoring that in turn would make the repatriation process less traumatic. The organisations must strive to revamp the encourage the global managers to construct a healthier environment for both male and females. Multinational companies should commence official and unofficial programmes particularly outlined to stimulate the female expatriate managers in intercontinental assignments. This approach recommends that women managers may require non-identical mentoring obligations than men and checks former studies which reveals that women must be supported in their career growth as compared to their male counterparts.

In order to strengthen dedication to mentoring strategies, MNCs should hire a superior mentor at the overseas location which be easily accessible by women expatriate managers. Due to the scarcity of female mentors in international business, multinational corporations have to come up with some strategies to motivate women managers to accept the challenge and occupy the responsibility of mentors. There is a need for companies to enlarge their pool of top female mentors who can assist female expatriate mangers by providing moral support and break the glass ceiling by representing as a role model for the future female managers in international business management.

The findings suggest that ‘trailing partners” serves as a key issue for both female managers and multinational corporations striving to send women in international assignments. When considered from the perspective of female managers and their partners, the challenge of partners adjustment in overseas location is a major problem which has increased and needs to be addressed by international researchers (Linehan & Walsh, 1999).The findings of the research paper also suggest that male spouses are not willing to resign their jobs to go along with their wives overseas. Therefore, this has intensified the difficulties faced by women expatriate managers with international projects with their partners. Hence, to address this issue global human resource of MNCs should introduce policies and programmes where pre-departure training and assistance for job-seeking needs to be provided to male spouses as well to reap the complete benefit.

The findings also point out that in this male dominant society, pessimistic and orthodox outlook of males were also considered to be deleterious for women’s career progressions. MNCs needs to address the issue and encourage policies to abolish this backward-looking attitude to ensure women expatriate managers accomplish their complete advantage. It was observed by the corporate managers working with female managers that differentiation and intolerance against female managers hampers their prospects of promotion. This recommends that female who wants to pursue international assignments face major challenges within the corporate culture. Hence, it is essential for organisations to raise awareness among genders for equal career opportunities and change negative attitude through well designed training programmes.

Limitations and future research

This study has some limitations which should be accepted. Tracing attention on the discernments of senior women managers disregards other hierarchical levels of female managers, whose knowledges might be remarkably contrasting to those of their top level fellow managers. The future research should be extended to the inclusion of other managerial levels which could assist in critically carve the results of the paper. The study fails to collect statistics from the corporations which can be vital to enlighten the practices and policies adopted to monitor the female expatriate’s profession and evaluate the changes made during the time span.

In a nutshell, numerous implications for additional research can be contemplated. Firstly, these comprises an emphasis on the multinational corporation’s policies and practices in the career enhancement of female managers where it affects both senior and middle level managers on international assignments. Secondly, a multi-level attention that would provide a large-scale statistic for complete valuation of the professional paths pursued by women managers. Finally, insertion of husbands of women managers would offer substantial details relating to occupation impact on external job responsibilities and company’s framework.

It would be appreciated for forthcoming researches to investigate women in the course of and at the end of distinct types of global assignments to comprehend the changes in the perspectives on barriers and opportunities. Lastly, only women’s perspective has been addressed, it would be valuable if the future researchers investigates their study from both partners perspective on barriers and opportunity of going on international assignments overseas for longer durations.


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