Self-initiated expatriation: a great way for women to build an international career

Did you know that far more women than men initiate their own expatriation? They don’t want to wait for years before their company decides to send them abroad. They just take their international career into their own hands and have proven to be very successful. Charles Vance and Yvonne McNulty who have conducted a research on self-initiated expatriation have written this guest blog with the major findings of their study. We thank them for their interesting contribution to our website.

Guest blog by Charles Vance and Yvonne McNulty

Our qualitative field research studying American expatriates in Rome, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and Berlin sought to extend the generalizability of previous research in Asia of self-initiating career path strategies for helping individuals gain international business experience and build global career competencies.

The Vance study carried out in 2005 was conducted in five major cities of East Asia with an American sample of mostly men who had followed a traditional company-directed expatriate career track for obtaining their current international work experience. Our recent study replicated much of the methodology of the Vance (2005) study in five major cities of Western and Central Europe, but also broadened the definition of expatriate to include all those who leave their home country to work in a foreign country, whether sent as a traditional company-assigned expatriate or as a self-initiated expatriate. We found that by broadening the expatriate definition we greatly increased the representation of women in our European sample, who predominantly worked in their own or local businesses achieved through a self-initiated expatriation (SIE) international career development strategy compared to the men in the sample who, as expected, had much higher representation as traditional company-assigned (CA) expatriates.

Our above research in Central and Western Europe , with our greatly expanded sample of expatriate women,  resulted in the generation of important new insights and observed trends pertinent to the SIE career track, particularly associated with women who appear to rely on self-managing the development of their international career competencies.  From our research, it appears that women predominate over men in the SIE track, likely for two reasons:

  1. They have a stronger earlier preference for study abroad
  2. There is a perceived home country bias against women being selected for expatriate assignments as part of the traditional CA international career track.

This predominance in the SIE track gives women the advantage in gaining global career competence through the international experience, since men tend to prefer the traditional CA track that is much less predictable and takes much longer to realize.

With a great majority of women in our study compared to men opting for the SIE career track, women were quite dominant in the identification and use of on-site networking as a successful international career support strategy. Besides more general chamber of commerce and trade association activities as opportunities for networking, several women in our study were also active in their city’s local American women’s club or professional women’s association, often citing those dedicated support groups for women as particularly helpful in enabling them to secure local employment. Many of these women’s organizations, initially organized to provide social support for the traditional male expatriate’s accompanying spouse, have expanded to include and even emphasize professional networking forums for women who are following the SIE track, and serving as valuable portals for numerous business connections and opportunities. These active and often informal professional women’s networking and support groups appear to provide an international exposure advantage to women over men, who generally seem to be held in a protective cocoon provided by their multinational firm, or limited for networking to the more general and formal chamber of commerce and trade association forums.

One important insight we gained was related to the influence of supportive relationships in dual career couples in securing and managing international work experiences. Much of the past research has examined challenges for the accompanying spouse, and more recently where that spouse is more frequently male. Future research should examine the dynamics of their relationship when both are actively pursuing international professional experience in a mutually supportive manner.

It also appears that in the SIE track active social and professional networking tends to be much more common for women expatriates. We need to do more research to know how they contribute to expatriate adjustment and building international career competencies, beyond providing mere social support for accompanying spouses.  These support mechanisms  seem to be viable opportunities for career development within the SIE track, particularly in local and self-employment roles.

We also found that the women in our research frequently had local national spouses and domestic partners.  This could be a means of potentially adding stability and support for the success of a longer-term SIE career track beyond 3 to 5 years duration in one location.

This rather intrusive look into the SIE’s personal life has been rare in a growing body of SIE research.   Because despite the significant transition of focus on career management from organizational to individual self-determining activities, SIE research  has not yet explored such personal factors as marriage and personal relationship decisions as part of the overall coping mechanisms that expatriates employ to facilitate greater career success.

The practical significance of our exploratory field research is that by understanding the motivation for women to pursue SIE opportunities over CA experiences, HR professionals can improve their selection criteria for expatriate assignments. Rather than limiting the pool of candidates by excluding dual-career couples, the provision of support mechanisms that enable expatriate couples, and in particular, female accompanying spouses to fulfill their international career development aspirations via SIE opportunities will likely begin to address one of the most significant barriers to mobility that has existed over the past three decades.

  1. In doing so, a wider talent pool from which to address international staffing shortages will emerge.
  2. Furthermore, once on an assignment, coaching or mentoring to facilitate partners’ SIE career development opportunities is likely to enhance overall expatriate adjustment through spillover effects and, in turn, their performance.
  3. Another important aspect is the provision of effective organizational support to facilitate spouses’ perceived adjustment.
    Recent research by McNulty noted that professional support in the form of access to, and knowledge of, appropriate resources such as associations, websites and books relevant to the dual-career issue were helpful in assisting accompanying partners to address critical issues of work and employment, identity, belonging, and purpose. Providing appropriate and effective organizational support therefore has the potential to greatly enhance longer-term expatriate loyalty and commitment, and in turn, to facilitate more successful assignments wherein all members of the expatriate family gain by the decision to move abroad.

Aside from a few recent qualitative and survey studies, there has been very little work examining women as self-initiating expatriates. Our research contributes to an important area of international career development neglected in previous studies that has predominantly focused on men as traditional company-assignment expatriates. Insights gained here are potentially valuable for guiding future research, as well as for enlightening the SIE career path option and associated conditions and experiences for both men and women who otherwise are facing a decline in the opportunity to secure a traditional CA expatriate experience, and thus decreasing opportunities vital for building global career competencies.

April 17, 2012

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