"Forget what you think you are"

Challenges and benefits of international job assignments

One of the simple definitions of feminism by Merriam-Webster is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. Though I agree with it, I do not consider myself a strong feminist as I believe that there are some significant and distinctive physical and emotional features, capabilities and responsibilities that “Mother Nature” bestowed on women that define their “modus operandi” and affect their work-life balance decisions at each stage of their life and career. That is not to say that women should by any means be treated as less worthy of professional appreciation.

But here I would like to touch upon expatriate professionals and women in particular, and what type of challenges and benefits international assignments are associated with from my experience as an expat-working mother and wife as well as the experiences of my close family members, many of my friends and colleagues. It is pretty obvious that women represent a small minority among expatriate workforce and some of the below general assumptions perhaps explain reasons for that.

 
 

CHALLENGES AND RISKS

The Loved Ones
Overall, family appears as an essential part of concerns because of women’s typically disproportionate contribution to day-to-day family domestic life both physically and emotionally, particularly if there are children in the family. International move is affecting everyone. It is not only “YOU”, but your most loved ones who have to adjust to new life. There is equal amount of pros and cons from the perspectives of spouses, children and often senior parents that remain “at home”. Dual career priorities and disruption to children’s education are among major barriers to international mobility. The last statement is true for both male and female expats.

The Nuances of a Job
Another essential part to consider is the scope of work of an international assignee, who typically has a larger breadth of responsibilities, a higher position than held previously or a very specific context which is often associated with “overseas” work assignments where environments often appear to be going through some transformational stage. Cultural differences and a foreign language environment put additional pressures in some instances. In some cultural contexts female professionals are not considered at all, thus facing gender and hierarchical discrimination which subsequently limits their opportunities for further international assignments and professional growth.

Potential Risks
Let's face some harsh facts of life:

  • During economic recessions and any kind of instabilities for that matter, expatriates are usually among the first ones to be affected. Employment contracts are usually short term and are dependent on local legislation in respective countries as well as those of your home country. There may be implications on foreign currencies, personal tax liabilities and your future social protection. 
     
  • Your children would typically attend an international English-speaking school. Once your child has settled in his or her new language of study and educational curriculum (provided that you come from a different language background), the challenge of finding a good school will be accompanying you wherever you go. Even if you move to an English-speaking country however to a lesser extent. If you plan to relocate back after a few years, this is definitely one of the key things to consider. Moreover there is an increasing number of the so-called "Third Culture Kids" (TCKs) - a term used to refer to children who were raised in an environment outside of their parents' culture(s). They do not completely belong to the culture of their country of origin, or the country they currently reside in. They are somewhat "in between", which makes them special in many ways, yet creates a number of potential concerns which should not be ignored.
     
  • If you find yourself in a situation looking for new opportunities back at home or in a new country of residence you may be faced with some degree of apprehension. Particularly if your new environment is less exposed to the global world and cannot reasonably evaluate and appreciate some of the more fundamental personal attributes and professional skills rather than a "market knowledge" or "experience in a similar role or industry". Although these "benefits" are rather superficial, easily attainable, subjective and often irrelevant one would be surprised to learn how many organisations still do not realise that such one-sided approach to recruitment may not be highly effective in sustaining an organisation's competitive advantage in the long run.
We need to forget what we think we are, so that we really become what we are
— Paulo Coelho

On the other hand, international work is usually highly developmental and enriching. Both for you and for your children, which is equally important! Life changes in all aspects. Whether you like it or not, in order to enjoy what you do and succeed you ought to show curiosity, adaptability, resilience, and a high level of interpersonal skills. You need to fully embrace your new living environment as your “new home”. 

POSITIVE ASPECTS

This is by far not a complete list of all the pros and cons of expatriate life. There are many things that need to be considered before taking any risks of moving to a new country on a job assignment, which to a certain extent is similar to permanent immigration. However I would like to reflect on some of the bright sides of living and working “overseas”.

  1. There is a positive cross-functioning between work and private life. For example, I felt that many of the skills I learned at work, such as discipline, observation, time management, negotiation, goal setting, long-term planning, project management helped me in handling my private life and to an extent teach my children some of these important life skills. Vice versa, my family has been teaching me many lessons which I believe benefited my career. 
    I learned to appreciate professional camaraderie based on empathy, honesty and mutual support no matter what.
     
  2. Wide-ranging and intense personal growth and emotional nurturance. You learn through new markets, diverse cultures, various political and social environments and through people; their language, traditions, values, life styles and history. You gradually master non-verbal cues in various situations. You mature through real life experiences that equip you with a unique set of skills that can never be learned in a classroom. Neither can it be practiced in your usual work environment unless you have enough courage and confidence to step out of your comfort zone and give your character and professional expertise a real-life test in a new and uncertain environment.
     
  3. You learn to balance risk, analyse situations and find solutions. Typically you have none of your usual “support team” around. This team consists of your extended family, friends, business networks, personal contacts as well as household helpers. This is where your attitude comes into play and you realise that almost anything is possible if you are positive and proactive enough.
     
  4. You learn how to build bridges and establish harmonious relationships on all fronts: at work, in school, social networks, and business circles. I did understand the value of friendship - true friendship which has “no strings attached” and therefore continues for life regardless of where you go next.
     
  5. You appreciate your own identity and cultural heritage as part of your self-awareness. You look for cross-cultural ties around you. You try to read more in your native language, you listen to music of your "home", you remain emotionally connected to countries where you lived before, you are driven to reach out to your extended family and friends. And you feel the urge of passing all that on to your children.
     
  6. I found some great mentors that have been helping me develop personally, professionally and make important life decisions. If you ever ask yourself what a “true mentor” is, here is the explanation I once read in a book which I think gives it the best description. It is somewhat spiritual yet quite sharp:
There are more fake gurus and false teachers in this world than the number of stars in the visible universe. Don’t confuse power-driven, self-centred people with true mentors. A genuine spiritual master will not direct your attention to himself or herself and will not expect absolute obedience or utter admiration from you, but instead will help you to appreciate and admire your inner self. True mentors are as transparent as glass. They let the Light of God pass through them.
— Elif Shafak, “The Forty Rules of Love”

After working internationally for a few years I relocated permanently to Australia following my family. Though this move is somewhat different to those when I travelled internationally for professional reasons, it is definitely another exciting and enriching chapter in my life which I am looking forward to explore and hopefully be able to share more positive aspects of it with my readers in the future.