In years past, many working women as a matter of course gave up their jobs if their spouses needed to move abroad for career reasons. Now, many female executives as a matter of course move abroad themselves, as experience in a foreign country becomes another building block of their career success.
For German women, the countries they are most frequently sent to by their companies are the United States, Switzerland, Britain, Spain, France and China. Those are some of the findings from global poll of 14,000 women conducted by InterNations for Handelsblatt. InterNations, an international online community for people who live and work abroad, has a network of 1.5 million expatriates.
The survey showed that more women than men would forgo a foreign posting because of children. Only 16 percent of the female expats polled have children who are minors, compared with 35 percent of men sent abroad.
One big issue for women is that their partners may not be able to find a job to match what they had back home. As a consequence, one of every three women sent abroad by a company leaves her partner at home, whereas only one in every four men with a partner goes abroad alone.
Depending on the culture, working women can suddenly find themselves in a very different situation in terms of their status as female managers. Russia, for example, has the highest percentage of women in upper management worldwide – 43 percent – according to consultant Grant Thornton.
Chinese society’s ideal of a full-time working mother translates to 38 percent of women currently holding top management positions. “Female managers are respected in business life in China,” said Malte Zeeck, co-founder of InterNations.
In contrast, female managers in Japan are even rarer (9 percent) than in Germany (14 percent).
At the beginning I always assigned tasks politely, now I give rigorous instructions. Vera Hahn, Managing Director, Bayer MaterialScience, Russia
“In Japan, India and some Arab countries, it is difficult for foreign women to be taken seriously on a professional level,” Mr. Zeeck said. Women working in those countries have to be more careful than men to adhere to cultural customs, “otherwise, they quickly land in an outsider role,” he said.
“Women are the strength of the Russian nation,” said Vera Hahn, an Austrian-born executive, who has been the managing director of Germany-based Bayer MaterialScience in Russia since 2011.
Women have been in leadership positions since communist times, something that makes it easier for foreign female managers, she added.
“At the beginning I always assigned tasks politely, but that was not understood as a concrete request," said Ms. Hahn, referring to the Russian workplace culture. "Now I give rigorous instructions, like, ‘that is due on my desk on Friday.’ ”
Subordinates aren’t used to discussing things with bosses either. “So, I organize a private meeting in advance, so that no one loses face in a big group,” said the 47-year-old.
Many Russians display a cold seriousness on the job, but they are actually cordial and emotional, according to Ms. Hahn. But while men greet each other with a kiss and embrace, they are very reserved with women and do not even shake their hands. “Russia is simply the bridge between Europe and Asia,” she said.
Russian woman strongly emphasize their femininity, even in the office. Extremely high heels, nail polish and perfect makeup are expected. “My heels are also higher than in Germany,” Ms. Hahn said with a wink. But she introduced an office dress code. “The skirts of many female colleagues were somewhat too short, the necklines too low. We have many international visitors here in Moscow, and they were bewildered.”
Ms. Hahn lives with her two elementary-school age children in Moscow. Her husband, who has a managerial job in northern Germany, commutes every two weeks to Russia. Both take turns about who has career priority.
“We knew that the long-distance would not be a walk in the park, but that holds the family together," said Ms. Hahn. "We would not want to miss the experience in Russia.”
Maria Mitschein is no stranger to moving for work. The software developer from Cologne was a financial officer of an airline in Turkey, led a software business in the United States for 10 years and worked as a personnel consultant and project manager in Germany and China.
She has been working in Dubai since 2010. She is responsible for developing new business in the Middle East and north Africa for German software company SAP. “Both my daughters are out of the house. It is an ideal phase of life, to start being a professional abroad again,” said Ms. Mitschein, 58.
Dubai’s rich mix of the orient and the occident fascinates her. “Here, the past and future meet each other – camels next to unmanned trains, iPads in Bedouin tents. All these opposites can be found magically in unison.”
Ms. Mitschein appreciates the Arab hospitality and feels safe as a women in the emirate. Nevertheless, she is a rarity in the managerial world in Dubai and the region. Many young Arab women have studied in the West, however, and are very ambitious. “Saudi Arabian women have the best grades in the SAP consultant tests by far,” she said.
Ms. Mitschein accepts the rules of Arab culture even when they draw negative comments in the West: “In the end, I am a guest here.” It is important, however, to dress correctly. Western women should cover their shoulders and knees and not extend their hands to men in greetings. A nod achieves the same result.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, separate offices exist for men and women. When Ms. Mitschein is there on business, she wears a long robe-like black dress called an abaya and a shawl as a head covering. “I have no problem with that as an emancipated woman. I nevertheless feel respected as a businesswoman in the Arab world,” Ms. Mitschein said.
“I can only encourage western female managers to risk the move to the Arab countries. An atmosphere of change prevails everywhere here,” she said.
Rita Dicke, who works for Germany-based specialty chemical firm Lanxess, was always a big fan of Asia. Two years ago, the chemist got the chance to move to Shanghai for her job. Today, the 53-year-old leads Lanxess’ Asia-Pacific business for water cleaning and treatment technology. She is one of 140 expats who work for the company across 18 countries.
When her transfer came up, her oldest daughter was completing high school. “My boss had always supported me a lot and understood that I had to supervise the job for a few months from Germany,” Ms. Dicke said.
Her husband works for Bayer in a managerial position, and the question of him giving up his job did not come up. “In the end, my eldest daughter, who was just starting her university studies in Germany, also needed a parental contact point.”
So Ms. Dicke and her youngest daughter moved to Shanghai in 2013. She is used to cultural peculiarities in Asian business life. “In China, women are not a rarity in leading positions. It is common that mothers work full-time.” In Japan, in contrast, she is among the very few female managers. Even highly qualified mothers in Japan mostly stay at home.
Ms. Dicke has learned how important it is in Asia to build trust with business partners and colleagues. “In China, there are situations that count as a loss of face, to be avoided at all costs. To speak directly about problems, in a meeting, as we are used to doing in Germany, is counterproductive.” She holds difficult talks only in private.
Ms. Dicke combines her business trips to the Cologne headquarters with trips to home and family: “For Easter, we all met each other in the middle and had a vacation together in the Maldives.” And on weekends, the family holds visits via video: “We are simply a global family.”
Nora Müller-Alten, 29, also has soft spot for foreign cultures. She is a consultant from the central German city of Darmstadt and works in New York for the Boston Consulting Group. From there, she travels abroad to consult on sewage-system projects in refugee camps in Uganda and Ethiopia.
“I learned a lot about myself and my German identity abroad,” said Ms. Müller-Alten, who has an MBA from Yale. For example, how differently problems can be solved. “When public transportation or official financial institutions are lacking in Africa, that will often be addressed more efficiently in informal ways or with innovative mobile technology,” she said.
She has experienced very different work worlds during her career, and notes that diversity is much stronger in the United States, and that there are often more women on the team. “Many of my colleagues have grown up in other countries and bring their different viewpoints with them. At the end, everyone here has their immigration-background,” said Ms. Müller-Alten.
She finds the American work atmosphere less formal than the German one. However, she said someone once said to her, “Nora, I love your honesty,” which she recognized was just a nice way of saying,“You are too direct.”
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