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Focus on female expatriates: what are their motivations and their challenges?

| | Read : 6 min

Female expatriates are becoming more and more prominent today, as traditional roles are shifting, and the world is changing, allowing for new ways to live and work. While their number is growing, they are not a monolithic entity, and women who choose to expatriate are working either for multinationals who send them on international assignments, or self-employed entrepreneurs.

Also, they can be single, married, with or without children. The important question we can ask is why companies are now willing to choose a woman instead of her male counterparts. Paris Attitude decided to focus on the motivations that push women to choose expatriation, and the challenges they face.

 Who are the female expatriates ?

The profile of women in expatriation

The expatriate population can be rather eclectic, especially as more unconventional lifestyles and working conditions have been emerging in the past decades, but it is possible to distinguish common situations and characteristics.

First of all, it is important to know that around 10% of the women who expatriate are in marriages where traditional roles and status are reversed, as they are the primary income earner of the household.

This is quite a meaningful point that shows how expatriation, while becoming more widespread, is still something of an unusual choice or option for women who follow a rather common path in life and work.

Besides this element, four categories can be used to define a female expatriate. The "refugee", as the name suggests, simply wants or needs to get out of her home country, usually because of the prevailing social, political or economic situation, while the "explorer" is more interested in traveling for culture, discovery and adventure, and enjoys the prestige of her status abroad.

On the other hand, the "mercenary" focuses solely on financial gain, looking for a way to increase her income. Finally, the "architect" sees this experience as an opportunity for career advancement, and she aims at climbing the ladder of professional success faster once she goes back home.

Having described those categories, we will now turn to the typical career choices and traits of women who choose to expatriate.

Who are the female expatriates ?

The career path

Most women opting for expatriation share qualities and traits that make them the ideal candidates for an international assignment or any other professional experience abroad.

These characteristics are also linked to the entrepreneurial spirit, that pushes women to create a business, work for themselves and stray from a more conventional career path. Indeed, those expats usually demonstrate great levels of creativity, strong determination, a certain dose of restlessness, and a taste for adventure.

Additionally, they have generally established a previous professional career, display self-confidence, and are skilled managers.

Expatriation, for these women, marks a transition in several ways. First, and quite clearly, it steers their career in a new direction, redefining their employment status and responsibilities.

Also, their roles when it comes to relationships and family are bound to change when moving to a new country for work, whether they do it by themselves or with their spouse and children.

This can change their perception of themselves and how they define their identity as a wife and mother. However, and not surprisingly, an impressive 89% of women in expatriation are single.

Unfortunately, stereotypes are still present in the corporate world, and discrimination based on gender is a reality many women have to face. This, in turn, undermines their confidence and makes them less likely to take the plunge, for fear of failure.

Now that we have a clearer picture of what characterizes those expats, let's examine the reasons why women choose this international experience.

Why do women expatriate?

Once again, there is not a single profile and reason for women to pack their bags and move to a new country for professional purposes, but certain triggers or causes are quite common among this population.

First, expatriation may be due to job redundancy. Having lost their job, women are more likely to consider alternative professional options and modify their perception of what a career can look like.

Then, in a similar way, hitting a proverbial glass ceiling is a good reason to try something new and expand your horizons.

More pragmatically, economic recession in their home country often pushes women to look for better opportunities in countries where the economy is more favorable.

Still relating to money but in a personal way, financial issues could also lead to choosing another place to live and work in, where the dollar goes further and the cost of life is lower, and/or wages are higher.

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Another important factor is frustration, boredom, or general dissatisfaction with their current job, encouraging them to find a position that better matches their skills, education, and/or tastes.

Finally, as mentioned previously, women are likely to be discriminated against because of their gender, not to mention harassed, in their working environment or even in their daily life outside of the office.

In that case, expatriation becomes an open door to a better treatment as a woman, in all aspects of their life.

As we have seen, various traits define the expatriate population, and some common situations or causes for expatriation can be highlighted. We will now consider the selection process and the drivers for international assignments.

Motivations for women to do their expatriation

Selection criteria

The most crucial and common criterion used by companies selecting candidates for expatriation is technical competence.

The reason is simple: not only are technical skills the most obvious factor for success or failure, they are also the easiest to determine, since companies usually assess their employees as part of the application process.

Then, relational abilities are essential when it comes to a successful international experience, as they denote a capacity to communicate with and relate to locals in the host country, which constitutes a huge part of the expatriate experience.

Centered around psychological characteristics, they also include cultural awareness and emotional intelligence.

Another key criterion is the ability to adapt to new environments, especially in terms of corporate, legal, political, social and economic structures. Indeed, those could be extremely different from what the expatriate knows, and it's important to understand them clearly.

An element than can be significant in certain countries and regions of the world if the ability to build strong bonds and establish lasting friendships with locals, as it is ultimately a way to constitute a network in the host country.

Finally, women's family situation, while often neglected by employers, should be an essential part of the selection process. Ensuring the male trailing spouse approves the relocation and is likely to adapt to their new environment is a way to avoid failure and repatriation, an issue that is quite prevalent.

With that said, additional success factors make for a rewarding experience, as we will now see.

The secret to a successful selection

Secret of a successful selection.

A number of Critical Success Factors characterize high-performing professionals, and they should be relied upon during the selection process. T

hey include high self-awareness, the ability to maintain motivation and focus, to balance your emotions, and to memorize past experiences, resilience, adaptability to new situations, and ongoing brain care.

All those elements are markers for success in individual careers but also in relationships, as they make for confident, balanced, driven individuals who use their skills to provide the highest level of performance in all areas of their lives.

Additionally, benchmarks for a successful professional experience overseas can be used to assess candidates prior to expatriation. They are technical and managerial skills, cultural adjustability, diplomacy, language skills, a positive attitude, and emotional stability.

Once again, people displaying these traits are likely to make the most of their international experience, both for themselves and for the company they work for.

Once the selection process is over and candidates have been chosen, success assessment should be based on three main criteria. First, employers must evaluate whether the mission abroad was completed satisfactorily.

Then, they should determine how well the employee has adapted to the local culture. Lastly, they can review the expatriate's actual performance throughout their assignment.

After examining the expatriation decision on the employer's side, let's consider what motivates female professionals to embark on this adventure.

The drivers to expatriation

Similarly to the causes and reasons, the motivations to relocate for work can be numerous and very personal. However, they usually fall into common categories.

The perspective of career advancement is a frequent motivation for women to take a chance abroad, when they may face a glass ceiling in their current position.

The opportunity to achieve a better financial situation is also a key driver to work in another country, where economic conditions are better.

On a more personal note, yearning for independence is a strong factor, as many women feel they are not free to live and work as they please.

Also, self-fulfillment is something they aspire to, and they may consider it is easier to reach their full potential outside of their home country.

Social status is another key driver for expatriation, since this kind of experience is usually seen as a way to be part of higher circles.

For women who have a family to take care of, relocation can mean employment opportunities for their spouse, as well as a way to provide for their family's needs.

Finally, the desire to discover new cultures and to learn foreign ways of life applies to the most adventurous women, who thrive in unfamiliar settings. Since they adapt more easily than their male partners, they are more likely to make the move.

With all this in mind, we will now take a look at the types of hardships women who expatriate may encounter.

The challenges women face before or during expatriation

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While those challenges depend on the type of industry women work for, some of them are quite universal.

One of the main hurdles on the path to an international career is a limited access to opportunities abroad due to a lack of female networks in foreign countries.

Then, as we mentioned several times, family matters are most likely to create a barrier to expatriation, or to cause its failure.

Another personal challenge comes in the form of an inability or a struggle to achieve the sometimes elusive work-life balance that is so crucial to a fulfilling professional career.

Still touching upon individual issues, loneliness constitutes a great hindrance when living and working abroad, and could lead to an early return.

Lack of support, either from your own company at home or from the locals once you are in the new country is also very detrimental, as feeling isolated and left to your own devices will probably create anxiety and impact performance.

A lack of planning before relocating is most likely a recipe for failure, where women feel unprepared and not ready for whatever awaits them in their new environment.

Finally, in terms of repatriation, failing to devise a strategy is also likely to generate feelings of frustration when things don't work out once you are back in your home country.

All the aforementioned challenges are more or less prominent according to individual situations, but some of them can be tackled successfully, so that women are not only more inclined to try expatriation, but also to make it a great experience on a professional and personal level.

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