Is It OK to Say €œNo?

Global Business Week – How Going Abroad Can Advance Your Career

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 Is it ok to say no?

By Mary Welch



A big reason why more women are not in career-advancing international business jobs? They say “no thanks.” It happens more often than you might think.

“Too few women step up for a variety of good reasons such as family constraints or fear of unknown cultures,” says Newell Rubbermaid’s consumer group president, Penny McIntyre. “This is one of the primary reasons more women aren’t in leadership positions overseas.”

But can the decision kill your career?

HR professionals privately tell Little PINK Book that refusing an assignment isn’t necessarily career suicide. But, don’t do it more than once.

“Your career is accelerated by having an overseas assignment. But having a failed overseas assignment is much more damaging,” says Jo Danehl, a British expat in the U.S., working for Cartus Intercultural and Language Solutions. “You need to know when you want that assignment and when not to take it. Ultimately it may not be the right fit and time, but you need to be able to articulate it.”

Termed “brown out,” performance failure can involve leaving an assignment early, quitting or being fired. “It costs so much to send someone overseas. If it’s not a good fit, the person will give a substandard performance and it will be very visible,” she says.

Coca-Cola’s head of global talent and development, Terry Hildebrand, agrees. “Companies are more concerned about failure than someone turning down an assignment.”

 Is It Ok To Say No?

Newell Rubbermaid executive Penny McIntyre’s son in Japan, during her overseas stint

Of course, there’s no compulsion to take on an overseas role. Bank of America’s Ruth Ferguson, SVP and HR head for the Asia-Pacific Region, tells it like this: “We want someone who wants to go. We understand that they may not be able to make a move for legitimate reasons and that doesn’t limit their careers at all. It’s not like there are no other options.” Plus, companies need to realize that just because women may pass up an assignment abroad now – it doesn’t mean they won’t gladly step up next time.

Hava Friedman, CEO of AIG Israel International Co., says it’s all about timing. “At this moment of my life I would not take a position overseas due the circumstances of my child. But I would definitely consider it positively in the upcoming future,” she says.

Still, there is an unspoken fear this will affect a woman’s career. “If a man turns down an assignment, it was a matter of it not being the right move or the right time,” says Patricia Deyton, director for the Center for Gender in Organizations at the Simmons College School of Management. “But if a woman turns down an assignment, it just reinforces the perception that women aren’t mobile. If a man says no, the corporate take-away is: ‘this person doesn’t want to move at this time.’ If a woman turns down a move, it is the flagship for all women.”

 Is It Ok To Say No?


The future

While many women still turn down international assignments, and the immediate pipeline for women isn’t on par with men, there are some positive trends.

Among them are:

  • A changing definition of a global assignment. You may not be based in a different country but there are ways to build an international portfolio. Manage an international team. Accept short-term overseas assignments that don’t require moving the family – or a short-term global project.
  • Traditional feminine qualities may be an advantage. Cornelius Grove and Willa Hallowell, partners with Cornelius Grove and Associates, believe female expatriates have an advantage in overseas jobs because they are “accustomed to operating in a system in which the majority of power is held by people unlike themselves, i.e. men.”
  • Using the local culture to your advantage. Coca-Cola’s SVP and chief people officer, Ceree Eberly, moved to Costa Rica as a single mom, with a young son. “I didn’t speak a word of Spanish and I had no one to help me. You might think I would not be accepted being a woman in a male-dominated country and society. But Latin America is essentially about the family, and my co-workers became my family.”
  • Embrace being different. Visibility is an advantage. Foreign clients are curious about women, want to meet them, and will remember them.
  • There are indications that companies are sending high potential young women – who don’t have a spouse, big mortgage and family – overseas to get early exposure as part of their career development. If this continues, there will be more women in the senior leadership pipeline in the next few decades.


“Living overseas is a life choice,” says Coca-Cola’s Terry Hildebrand. “We want women to succeed – in their personal lives as well as professionally. We don’t want women to have to choose their families or going overseas. We don’t want it to be an ‘either/or’ situation. There are a variety of ways to make it an ‘and/and.’ That’s what everyone needs to make happen.”







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