I’m lucky to be making lots of girl friends here in Chile. They come from all over the world and all different walks of life, but they share one common factor. They all complain about how tough it is to work.
This got me thinking. Is it intrinsically harder to work as an expat? Or as an expat woman?
Is it the foreign culture or the language which is the problem?
Is it just Chile, or are all countries just as tough?
Or maybe it’s motherhood which gets in the way?
I spoke to Claudia Landini, intercultural trainer and serial expatriate for nearly 30 years. Claudia is the founder of Expatclic, a non-profit organization that supports expat women all over the world before, during and after their relocation. As a mother having lived in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Europe, she understands firsthand the struggles expat women face in the job market.
I asked her about the challenges expat women face and how we can overcome some of the major obstacles to building a career in our host countries.
How do you view the current climate for expat women at work and those looking to find work?
In my opinion it’s tough. There’s a big disparity between men and women, and although in some countries things have improved a lot, we’re still underpaid and enjoy less work opportunities.
My focus is on women who follow their partners abroad, and the challenges for them are well known: they always have to be there for the family and they put a lot of time and energy into helping the children (and sometimes even husbands) to adapt.
It can also be difficult to arrange work visas. I’ve heard sad stories of administrative hassles that can lead women to give up any plan of a career abroad.
Do you think women have more success if they move for their own work compared to those accompanying their spouses and finding work afterwards?
I’m not sure about success, but they certainly have it easier in terms of work satisfaction.
Women who accompany their spouses not only look after the family, but also face administrative and logistical difficulties when they look for a job or launch their own business.
With this I don’t want to discourage anyone from turning to work as soon as the time is right. Everything can be done and I have seen amazing examples of determination and perseverance in women.
It’s out of the question, however, that those arriving into a new country already with a working contract generally find everything smoother and more enjoyable.
What advice would you give women set to embark on a new work assignment?
Arriving into a new country with a contract already in hand implies landing and starting work straightaway.
In the initial phase it can be a struggle to cope with the new working environment, trying to understand all the hidden codes of the new culture and at the same time proving that their performance is up to expectations. Discovering beforehand as much as possible in terms of the company’s cultural frame of mind can help to give more confidence.
I would also recommend some intercultural training, this is a great way to learn from the outset and it can boost motivation a lot.
Any tips for women about to move abroad to accompany their spouse, in terms of finding employment?
My first recommendation would be to get as much information as possible about work permits and visa obligations in the new host country, in order to avoid any disappointments.
Once they’re clear about the working situation and possibilities there, I would start checking out the country before relocating – try and get an idea of the working situation in their field with some deep net searches, read up job announcements online and contact expats or locals on the spot.
Once there, my suggestion would be to do anything they can to network in a wise way. Avoid becoming obsessed with the job search and merely approaching people for jobs. Instead be present as much as possible at several venues. Never be afraid or ashamed to talk about your profession, because anybody could unexpectedly be looking for someone who matches your profile, or know someone who does.
Do you think it’s ever necessary for expat women accompanying their spouses to retrain, switch direction or abandon their career, instead of continuing their current career path?
This very much depends on the kind of career and the country.
Some women have managed to work in their sphere abroad, others had to totally reinvent themselves.
One thing is sure: your work abroad will always have to undergo an adaptation process, just like your social life and daily routine. Exactly because you’ll be working in a different culture, you’ll have to shift, sometimes maybe just slightly, some of the components of your work. Unless, of course, your work is completely online.
Any recommendations for expat women who have been out of work for a while and who are looking to get back into employment?
First of all they have to be convinced that working is their right. This is something that many women tend to forget after being available for the family full time.
They also have to find a career they truly love.
Enjoying what one does is key to finding the right amount of energy and enthusiasm to overcome the obstacles that going back to work can entail.
It’s also very important to look into three things: what they love, what they’re able to do (in terms of training and transferable skills) and how their overall experience has equipped them. Put all the pieces of this puzzle together and try to connect them to the working reality, both to the country they live in and their personal situation.
What advice would you give to women looking for work in a country in which they do not speak the local language?
Learn the language! I’m half joking, of course. It takes a long time to learn a new language at the level required for most professions.
Try to seek out opportunities linked to your own language or other languages you’re fluent in. Or address groups who do not speak the local language and need services in a language you master.
And for expat women accompanying spouses on a short term basis?
If it’s just a short term assignment, it doesn’t really have to be justified on a CV. I believe times have changed and having a ‘hole’ in your CV is no longer something to hide, as long as you can demonstrate that your gap can be fruitfully used in your profession.
Try to do something while abroad though – maybe some voluntary work, or learn a new skill, travel and discover, write a blog, anything that you’ll be able to use later on in your work.
A lot of female expats I’ve met struggle to balance work, family and expat life. What do you think is the best approach to the juggling act?
I think this very much depends on one’s priorities.
Be clear on what your priorities are and then spend some time investigating, reflecting and exploring ways to work on them.
For a long time my priority was to be a full-time mother, so I set aside any idea of work. I worked a lot as a mother, I set aside a lot of time and energy for my children. When they were older, however, my priorities shifted, and when I felt ready to go back to work, that’s when I made a new plan.
Leaving one’s own career to go abroad and build a new life from scratch takes a lot of energy and it can chip away self-confidence and trust.
The most important thing is to be clear with the meaning the expat life project has for you. Once you have this clarity, it really doesn’t matter if you want to be a full-time mother, volunteer or move mountains to find a new job. And this takes time, patience and optimism.
For more information on Expatclic, or to contact Claudia directly visit www.expatclic.com