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How it can pay off for women to work abroad

While there's long been excitement and intrigue associated with taking a job abroad, many of us―particularly women―have also heard unflattering accounts. One executive I met recounted the time she went on assignment to Saudi Arabia, only to address a blank wall each day she kicked off status meetings. As it turned out, no males from her host country were willing to make eye contact with her. There's also the story of the fast-tracking woman who journeys to Asia Pacific, takes a job heading up a business unit and finds she's neither seen nor heard. Her host colleagues don't know quite where to place her, a point echoed by the fact that there are no women's restrooms on executive floors.

Today however, accepting an international tour may represent an entirely different opportunity for women. With many multinational companies putting a high value on those who've spearheaded new initiatives and spent time in the trenches, working abroad can earn a young professional serious stripes. Many have documented that those who accept expat status can get unique hands-on experience-often assuming responsibility they wouldn't be given at home.

In their book, Get Ahead by Going Abroad: A Woman's Guide to Fast-Track Career Success, C. Perry Yeatman and Stacie Nevadomski Berdan make a compelling argument for women choosing to work in foreign locales. The authors found in their research that 85 percent of those who "moved up by moving away" agreed international experience accelerated their careers; 78 percent agreed that it had a significant, positive impact on compensation; and 71 percent agreed they were given greater responsibility earlier on. And the authors know a thing or two about upward movement. Yeatman, for example, was a 25-year-old account executive making $25,000 a year when she accepted her first job overseas. By the time she returned to the US ten years later, she was serving as a vice president at a major consumer products company, making more than $500,000.

Another woman who's benefitted from taking risks abroad is Nicki Gilmour. The highest sales performer for four straight years at the Financial News Group in London, Gilmour convinced the chairman she was right for the job when the news group was ready to expand offerings in New York. Sent over as a head of US business, Gilmour thrived―despite an intense workload and steep learning curve. Within a few years, she had 35 people working for her, was on the board of the Financial News Group, and had persuaded leadership to let her launch a new product, efinancialcareers.

Reflecting on her move, Gilmour notes, "I would not have been able to be on a board at age 31 otherwise. Nor would I have learned even a third of what I did by staying in the UK. Growing a business in a different country cannot be underestimated." Gilmour has since parlayed her experience into the establishment of her own company, Evolved People Media.

Dealing with the unknown, being flexible and open, and tolerating ambiguity are just a few characteristics needed to work abroad. If these sound transferrable, they are. Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola pointed out at this year's World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, how important international experience is for future leaders, noting that women must have access to such opportunities.

While women are increasingly taking the international route, support structures have not necessarily caught up. A study by Mercer Human Resource Consulting showed that female expatriates are more likely than males to leave their partners at home when on assignment and are less likely than their male counterparts to have a partner prior to going on assignment. Yvonne Sonsino, principal at Mercer Human Resource Consulting told the American Management Association, "Going on expatriate placements can be an important step on the career ladder, and women are increasingly interested in taking these assignments. Yet many companies' policies are outdated and do not reflect the changing profile of their expatriates, so assignees' requirements are dealt with on a case-by-case basis." For mothers, particularly single mothers, trying to conform to existing policies or advocate for new ones can be an obstacle and a turnoff.

Still, women appear to be ideal transplants for companies looking to expand. Get Ahead by Going Abroad co-author Berdan notes that women's communication skills and propensity toward team building and adaptability give them an advantage in leading overseas. In one study, American female expats were actually preferred by Indian "host country nationals" as co-workers, significantly more than male expatriates from the U.S. And yet, some women don't even make it to the short list of candidates for international work based on assumptions that women don't want to be mobile.

Women are well matched to meet the challenge of international opportunities. As demand for US managers traveling abroad increases, women must be part of the pipeline being considered. Saskia Meckman, expert on global assignments and founder of Soleil Intercultural has pointed out that younger generations may not have the appetite required for the commonly long hours of overseas assignments and the sacrifice to family time. But I say, let's make corporate expat policies more inclusive and let them decide.

By Selena Rezvani

 |  November 12, 2010; 11:34 AM ET
Category:  Compensation , Corporate leadership , Leadership and Compensation , Leadership development , Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Thanks to B & O - Bernanke and Obama, we will soon be living in a third world economy. If you can't find a job here, go to another third world country.

The way the dollar is dropping like the Titanic - it won't make any difference where you live. For the last three months the Mexican peso is going up and the dollar is dropping. There are already a million Americans living in Mexico.

Posted by: alance | November 12, 2010 4:19 PM
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I personally would be more interested in how to find these opportunities to work abroad as a woman. I would love to work abroad, but these opportunities are extremely limited and very competitive.

Posted by: heartprivacy | November 12, 2010 2:16 PM
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