How international travel benefits women – and why employers should offer female employees opportunities to travel internationally as part of their careers
Ah, travel – the very word conjures up spectacular images of pristine beaches, exotic animals, and a number of famous landmarks. What a dream those who take up a job or work assignment abroad must be living! Surely, adventure must await at every turn.
It’s all excitement and intrigue until we hear the numbers: Women only comprise 20% of the current internationally mobile population – even though a recent survey by PwC pegged 71% of female millennials as wanting to work abroad during their career. What gives?
Plenty of anecdotes online provide several insights: A female executive recounts the time she went to Saudi Arabia for a work assignment, only to discover that the men there weren’t willing to maintain sustained eye contact with her, which, to be sure, made for some awkward meetings. Another female executive recalls travelling to the Asia Pacific to helm a business unit, only to find herself mostly ignored. Her colleagues there don’t quite seem to know exactly how to properly deal with her. In her workplace, there wasn’t a single restroom for ladies on the executive floors. Women often get strange looks: in cultures where familial ties and roots are prized higher than climbing corporate ladder, why on earth would a young woman leave her family and friends behind for work?
Women thus get overlooked to get overseas assignments, based on the assumption that women don’t want to be mobile, due to family responsibilities. Indeed, a study conducted by the Kellog Graduate School of Management and Loyola University discovered that, with all things being equal, women were transferred a great deal less than their male colleagues, which saw the women enjoy smaller pay increments and slower career progress than their male counterparts. There’s a glaring disparity: the recent survey by PwC also found that nearly the same percentage of women and men – 40% – with children wanted to take an overseas posting. There’s zero basis for employers to not assign women the opportunity to take up working abroad because of the fear that women will choose their families first.
This misconception is especially harmful. Women stand to benefit greatly from working abroad. International companies greatly value those who’ve worked abroad, seeing them as attractive candidates who are comfortable with dealing with the unknown, are flexible and open enough to adequately handling new challenges, and are competent in cross-cultural communication. Doing international assignments can provide a major boost up the career ladder, and women are increasingly keen to take up these assignments. However, the policies of far too many companies are stuck in the past; and more often than not, take the position that women must make a binary choice: their families, or their career progress. Adapting to existing outmoded policies or trying to push for new ones can be utterly exhausting.
Yeatman and Berdan, in their book, Get Ahead by Going Abroad: A Woman’s Guide to Fast-Track Career Success, discovered that 85 percent of those who’ve moved abroad and later rose to more senior positions agreed that the overseas experience helped fast-track their careers; 78 percent of them agreed that it helped to increase their pay greatly; and 71% of them agreed that they were able to take on greater responsibility earlier on than would’ve been possible if they’d remained in their home country. By working abroad, women can take advantage of the multiple opportunities that may not be accessible back home and can come back ready to progress further in their careers. Indeed, a large majority – 83%! – of the women interviewed in Yeatman and Berdan’s book would recommend pursuing overseas job opportunities.
Not making any serious effort to try and redress this gender issue represents a tremendous loss of potential – half the world’s population, denied the opportunity to realize their full potential. In times when talents and skills are rare, every company worth their salt must steer their efforts into employee retention and the creation of an inclusive workplace environment; otherwise, the company will almost certainly be susceptible to an outflow of talent.
A company’s ability to remain relevant will depend on whether they have in place a culture that develops and supports talented women. Programs should be tweaked to not only help women remain in the workforce, but to succeed in the workforce. For example, pushing more women for short-term overseas assignments might perhaps just be the solution for women to have the flexibility to adequately handle their family commitments and reap the benefits of working abroad.
It’s imperative for women to have this access to such international opportunities – such experiences are crucial career development opportunities that are too vital for women to not have. It’s on employers to invest a little extra effort in helping women succeed. Hopefully, soon, a lot more women can head into that cosy corner office.