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Global Business Week – How Going Abroad Can Advance Your Career

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By Mary Welch


A whopping 84 percent of Little PINK Book readers surveyed say they’d take a job overseas if it would “dramatically advance” their careers. But just the desire to go likely won’t be enough to get you there.

Many companies don’t want to send a woman.

They won’t come out and say it, but either there isn’t an existing process to accomplish this, or they’d prefer not to in the first place.

This, despite a desire expressed by 53 percent of women to relocate abroad, compared to 49 percent of men, according to a Hydrogen Group report titled: Global professionals on the move.

Why? Firms believe it’s simply easier to relocate men. Although that may not be true, Susan M. Clarke, president of Accident and Health for Chartis U.S. says, “I believe we often make assumptions that someone may or may not consider an overseas assignment and we really cannot know for sure how they will react.”

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Newell Rubbermaid executive Penny McIntyre’s family in Russia, during her assignment abroad

Indeed, for a woman to relocate her family is challenging. “I find it interesting that 85 percent of all females, whether they have a partner or not, go to their overseas position alone. 60 percent of the men bring their partner,” says Patricia Deyton, director for the Center for Gender in Organizations at the Simmons College School of Management.

Plus, a large percentage of foreign assignments are in emerging countries where traditional female roles are still very much in play. For instance, in some places a single Muslim woman may not live alone – even if she is a C-level executive. In others, women are strongly advised not to travel alone.

Local norms may also prevent high-potential women working in their native countries to accept overseas assignments. One example is moving an employee from China to the U.S. – in many regions, women are responsible for taking care of the extended family (sometimes two sets of parents and more than two generations). Without the infrastructure found in more developed countries, such female executives face strong cultural pressure to stay in their native homeland and care for family.

The good news? This may be changing. “It used to be you would never consider a woman for a position in Japan because they wouldn’t respect her,” says Coca-Cola’s Terry Hildebrand, head of global talent and development. “But we have had very successful women in Japan. We have had Jewish leaders in the Middle East. Really, the only exception is putting a woman in a war-torn country. We would think carefully about that whether it was a man or woman, but especially a woman.”

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What Can You Do About It?

Bank of America, Chartis and The Coca-Cola Company are in the minority of corporations that have established a formal candidate identification process for women’s global leadership. Most companies don’t offer this.

So what’s a woman to do? “It’s important to get international experience any way you can,” says Joel Koblentz, president of The Koblentz Group, an executive research firm.

Accenture’s global director of leadership development, Camille Mirshokrai, says there are a variety of ways to get noticed. “Put yourself out there for new assignments and be proactive. Talk to your supervisor about your career path. Don’t just use your supervisor as a sounding board, but as one who can help you secure the tasks you need to achieve your goals.”

Other ways to show that you would like an overseas assignment:

  • Show a genuine interest in the company’s international business.
  • Travel overseas in your free time, particularly in an area where you would like to relocate.
  • Learn another language.
  • Get involved in a local international organization.
  • Take a sabbatical to teach English in China for a year.
  • Manage a line of business. Many believe line managers are more likely to be offered opportunities overseas than those in the “softer” and more traditionally female areas of public relations, legal or HR.

“If you have a genuine interest in working overseas, it may be as simple as raising your hand,” says Penny McIntyre, consumer group president of Newell Rubbermaid. A Canadian, McIntyre lives in Atlanta, and has had several overseas assignments, including work in Russia and Japan.

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