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Addressing Misconceptions about International Assignments for Women

By Tina Vasquez

Rosalie L. Tung is all too familiar with the challenges that women face when it comes to international assignments. As the Professor of International Business at Simon Fraser University in Canada, Tung has devoted countless hours to researching and writing about these challenges, but they may not be what you think.

In her groundbreaking work Female Expatriates: The Model Global Manager?, Tung asserts that women are actually ideal candidates for overseas assignments and the challenges they face have little to do with the difficulties of being in a new country, but rather in the difficulty they experience actually getting the opportunity to work abroad.

The percentage of women in international assignments increased from 3 percent to 16 percent in the late 1990s. Throughout the 2000s, the percentage increased, though very slowly. Most recent studies have either put the percentage of women in international assignments at or slightly below 20 percent.

Tung sites three factors outlined by Nancy J. Adler that are commonly provided by companies for the low deployment of women in international assignments: women don’t want overseas assignments (due to family considerations), other countries don’t want female expatriates in business dealings, and women lack the skills or competencies to succeed. These are “misconceptions” and as Tung wrote in Female Expatriates, “As long as women remain under-represented in international assignments, they will continue to lack the opportunity to acquire one of the critical competencies required of global leaders.”

This is more than just being denied one job opportunity; it’s more like being denied vital experience that can drastically change the course of a woman’s career. As Tung points out, the continued globalization of industries has led to a quest by organizations worldwide for global leaders who can help their companies survive in highly competitive work environments. In a global economy, people with global experience are pivotal to an organization’s competitive edge and women have often been excluded from promotions and leadership positions because they appear to lack one of the critical competencies identified for such key roles: a global mindset.

Once again, women find themselves in a Catch-22: they can’t move forward unless they have experience working internationally, but they’re not given the opportunity because of unfair assumptions about their competence and willingness to work abroad. And it’s more than just individual women – it’s something happening on an institutional scale.

Fortunately, researchers are chipping away at these misconceptions.

Myth or Misconception?

About those misconceptions: in her study, Tung discovered that they were outright myths. In a paired comparison of male and female expatriates (i.e., the men and women were similar in terms of age, years of business experience, etc.), more women than men were willing to accept an international assignment, even when their family objected to the assignment. “In other words,” Tung said. “Women knew that they would be missing out on an important career development opportunity if they refused the assignment. Therefore, they were willing to make more sacrifices.”

In regards to the misconception that some countries will not accept foreign women, Tung says that many male-dominated countries are willing to deal with international women for two primary reasons: curiosity (they assume that if they are sent by their company, they must be very good) and foreign women are considered to be different from local women. Adler even implied that foreign women are considered a sort of third gender, containing characteristics of both men and women. Surely these aren’t perfect conditions (curiosity, really?), but it’s clear that there isn’t an overt unwillingness to work with female expatriates in business dealings. “Because women tend to be under-represented in management circles in male-dominated countries, they enjoy the advantage of standing out and getting noticed. Of course, they are also subject to more scrutiny and therefore they really have to be good,” Tung said. Sounds familiar.

As for the misconception that women lack the skills or competencies, Tung sites current trends in education. “The equal representation of women in MBA programs and the reality that two years ago, there were more women enrolled in Ph.D. programs in the U.S. than men, makes it clear that women are certainly possessing the same skills.” In her 2004 study, Tung’s argument is that because women are better able to cope with the isolation associated with overseas work and possess better human relations and listening skills, they are in fact more suited for international assignments. “Human relations and listening skills are particularly important in high-context cultures and three quarters of the world is high context. As such, my hypothesis is that women are really the ideal global managers,” Tung said.

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