Sunday, February 3, 2013

So...why are so many expat women "trailing spouses"?

Before I begin, a quick link:

Call for submissions - stories from expat women in Asia - deadline is coming up. I just found this, or else I would have posted it earlier. I may submit - it depends on what I can write and be happy with between now and February 28th, with a trip to Sri Lanka in between.

Awhile back I was asked to review a book put out by Expat Women, a site for...well, for expat women. I did so, giving it mostly a positive review, with a few things I had concerns about - mainly that while it was a good resource for one demographic of expat women, which didn't happen to be my demographic. That this was fine by me because hey, that's how any media item has to be marketed. That's true for TV, music, movies, books and more.

The demographic the book was targeted to seemed to be expat women who are "trailing spouses": the wives of men sent abroad for work. They tend to not work - often they can't - are more likely to have children (and obviously be married), and be more concerned about things like finding friends when you're not in your party-smarty youth, raising children abroad, keeping marriages together, dealing with culture shock when you're not hear as per your own life plan, leaving work behind and sacrificing for your spouse's career. There is other advice in the book beyond that, of course (it truly is a good book), but this was clearly the demographic of women it is aimed at.

That got me thinking - why? Why are there so many "trailing spouse" wives, and not more "trailing spouse" husbands or women who come over independently? I know quite a few, but there aren't many (any?) resources directed at us: the scale seems to be tipped in favor of the non-working trailing expat wife. There is nothing wrong with being that, mind you - I just wonder...why is it the norm? Why when these employees are sent abroad, is it assumed that the man was the one sent over, and his wife is the one coming along? Why does it happen that it's so often men, and not women? Where are the trailing husbands? (I've already asked where the independent women are - although I've met more since I wrote that post). Where is the advice for the working woman abroad, the female breadwinner expat, the woman trying to make it on her own, or as someone who makes a equal or greater economic contribution to her family? Where is the advice for the woman who decided to go abroad on her own and met someone there, or who was the driver of that decision in a family or couple? Where is the advice for working couples abroad where the challenges of expat life (especially the kind I live, without company-paid drivers and maids) commingle with the challenges of both spouses working?

I've tried to do this for expat women in Taiwan - looking at rape, divorce and abortion legislation, socializing, dating and marriage, sexism in society, in the expat community and at work, working generally and resources for women, but I'm just one woman in one country with advice targeted at this one small island nation, and there truly are a dearth of other resources out there.

I'm asking these questions because that's who I am. I decided to come to Taiwan on my own. I didn't come with a company and get a sweet expat package (I wouldn't want to give my life over to a company to get that sort of package a few decades later, so that's fine). Brendan and I got together here, and I have generally been either an equal economic force in our relationship, or the breadwinner. I didn't sacrifice to come here: this is where I've built my career, because I want a career. I have no idea what it would feel like to be a trailing spouse, and so advice aimed at "expat women" that is actually aimed just at the trailing wives doesn't do much for me. I don't have the time for "coffee mornings", the issues associated with coming over for someone else's job, or access to play groups or various clubs aimed at wealthier expats.

Here are a few things I've come up with to investigate why this might be - why the 'expat woman' is so often reduced to an assumption of being here for her husband's job and not working herself, and why that assumption is so often correct:

Companies that send people abroad fear sending a female employee to countries with sexist work cultures (or just cultures full of sexism generally):

I do think this happens more often than people like to admit. They have an opening in, say, Tokyo or Korea, where drinking too much and going to "special KTV" or girlie bars are all a part of doing business. They figure "well, we could send this really qualified woman, but for that kind of networking people would be more comfortable with a man, so let's send this other really qualified man." It's not that someone less qualified gets the job, necessarily (although that may happen), it's that equally qualified women get passed over.

And that's just for East Asia - imagine what it's like for positions open in places like Riyadh.

Sexism in regional offices makes it harder for the head office to send a woman over:

This kind of ties in to the previous heading: sexism in the home office might be a part of what keeps women back, but sexism in the regional offices where they'd be working also likely has a lot to do with it. Just as the head office might think "she can't network with key people in that culture, because there, that's what men do", and the regional office might be thinking the same thing, and doing what they can to keep women from being transferred over.

I haven't heard of this being an issue in Taiwan - but that's just me, so I do welcome other observations - but I have heard of it being an issue in Korea, China, Japan and the Middle East.

Women just aren't going for these jobs...

1.) ...because they are less likely to decide to uproot their families for work

I see this a lot. More and more women are breadwinners and are dedicated to their careers, but the balance is still tipped in favor of men. A lot of women get to the point where they might be offered highly skilled and well-paid work abroad, or an overseas transfer through their company, but they decide not to do it. What will their husband do (I would say "this is the same question as "what will my wife do?", but we seem as a society to have a different answer for that, and that's not right)? What about kids' schooling, if that's an issue? What about extended family? What about our home? What about... ... ...?

That, at least, is one popular narrative, and one I'd argue is more expected from women by society than men, who are still more likely to see it as "I have this great new work opportunity, it could be amazing for my career, we'll make it work and the family will survive."

Something similar happened with a Taiwanese family I know: a husband and wife I know - the husband was looking at job opportunities abroad (with the idea that he'd bring his family, although it would not necessarily be ideal for them). The wife had had similar opportunities, but chose not to take them for the sake of her family - his "it wouldn't be ideal" was her "I'm not going to go". He put his career first, with the blessing of his wife. While his wife probably would have gotten her husband's blessing to take the opportunities she had, she didn't. I am sure that this was the right decision for her on an individual level, but it is an example of why there's a problem on a larger scale.

I don't think that's a difference in attitude inherent in male and female biology or instinct, or if there is some root in such things, I don't think it's the main reason. I blame nurture, not nature, for this gendered narrative. I blame socialization into gender roles and societal expectation of how a woman relates to family and career vs. how a man relates to them. The only way around it is to change - naturally, because you can't force these things - how we socialize our daughters vs. our sons. When a generation of women grows up both consciously and unconsciously confident that if she so desires, she can take those career plunges and her family will be OK, things will change. But only then.

2.) ...because they fear sexism in other countries

This is a real concern, because there is sexism in other countries. There is also sexism in America: I guess it's sort of "the beast you know" in your own culture, whereas in a new one it's big and scary and impenetrable, and seems impossible to fight. I can see how a woman who might have otherwise been open to moving abroad might get scared off by hearing about the sexism there. There are probably Western women avoiding parts of the Middle East for fear that she'll have to dress in a way she doesn't wish, or interact with men in ways that make her feel uncomfortable: sometimes, it makes you uncomfortable to be too modest - it makes you feel like you're being put in your place, shoved down, made lesser, by the culture forcing you to interact "modestly" with men, or not at all. After the gang rape on a Delhi bus made international news, a lot of women I know are concerned about life in not just Delhi, but India as a whole. Many are shocked that I've traveled there alone and been there so many times.

I can imagine it putting you off going for pleasure or study, or independent work - "why live in a country where there isn't even lip service to female equality, and I truly am considered lesser?" - or as an overseas transfer - "I'm not sure I want to go to Korea if I have to go toe to toe in drinking with colleagues and counterparts".

Yet another reason to battle sexism globally, not just locally.

3.) ...because they "simply don't want them"

I don't actually buy this, but I've heard it said (by men, and some older women), so I'll address it here. If you do hear this, it's more a function of the reasons above (#1 and #2) than any actual innate lack of desire to work abroad. There will always be individuals who do or don't want to live abroad, for whatever reason. That, however, is not determined by gender beyond that point that socialization attempts to make a distinction. Don't believe the evo psych whackjobs on this one.

There are too few women at positions high enough to be considered for overseas transfers:

Kind of similar to not uprooting family to an overseas location, but with a broader, deeper undercurrent. Women are more likely to sacrifice their careers for family - if they keep working, they're more likely to take fewer hours, be offered and take fewer promotions, get smaller raises, and just plain not make it to high enough positions in their companies to get themselves transferred abroad. Women who want to move abroad for their own reasons, who intend to find their own work there, tend to do better in this area, but for women in established positions in international firms, this is yet another thing the "you can't have it all"/"nobody asks a man how he balances a career and a family" glass ceiling has taken away from us.

A wife/family is more likely to acquiesce to her husband's overseas assignment than vice versa:

How often have I heard it said among friends back home - "I had some opportunities abroad, but I didn't take them because my husband didn't want to go. I didn't want to be long distance, so I stayed"? More than you'd think, and more than I'd like. One of my friends once talked of traveling the world and moving abroad for a time (yet another of our friends had taken the plunge and moved to Morocco). She didn't go because her boyfriend (now husband) was really not interested, and hates flying. I like the guy, he's great, and very supportive of her otherwise. He's solid. But it can't be denied that she didn't try the expat or world traveler thing, even for a time, as a sacrifice for her relationship. I am sure it was the right decision for her in a personal sense, but if the personal is in some way political, it is one example of why we don't see that many women abroad.

Women feel more social pressure to settle closer to "home":

I already wrote about this - but my point still stands. In a world where women are socialized to prioritize family and men are socialized to prioritize independence and breadwinning, many women find it more difficult to uproot and leave home for farflung locales (although many do).

The Old Boys' Network of cushy expat assignments makes it difficult:

I think this also happens more often than you'd think - not a big issue with women like me who come over and find work independently - I wasn't interested in being tethered to a company that could send me or return me home on a whim, based on what was best for them, and not what was best for me (I'm doing more of my own freelance thing these days for that reason - I'm sick of career decisions that impact me being made by companies looking out for themselves, and not for their employees. I understand that that's just how business works, but I'm not interested in participating).

But with women who do go that route, they may find themselves shut out to some extent. Those jobs, where they still exist (and I am not convinced they should exist, with more and more qualified local talent able to take such positions), can be pretty sweet. It's not unusual (although it is becoming more so) to have the house provided for you - and the digs are nice, often downtown luxury apartments with hotel-like amenities or full-on houses with pools and views, company cars and drivers, maid service, a competitive salary by American, not local, standards (unless that place is Europe), home leave, paid-for airfare and relocation costs and more. I can see how those in charge - mostly men, still - would want to get their buddies into such positions.

The stereotypes about expat life cause women to internalize the idea that these jobs are not open to them:

Books by expat women for expat women tend to focus on women who stay abroad for a few years, not long term, who travel rather than work (although some stories involve women working), and advice tends to center, as I said above, on trailing spouses, not on breadwinning wives abroad. Conversation on these topics still assumes man-as-breadwinner is the norm, book clubs, craft clubs, children's play groups and coffee mornings are all for women (who are assumed to not be working), articles and news spots that involve expats tend to involve men, and media and resources tend to assume male-breadwinner-female-homemaker. When they're geared at women, they tend to be specifically for women, rather than being a resource for all that women can also enjoy.

What women do get are things like this (skim right past the idiotic, sexist and horrifying intro to the copy of the WSJ article) and this CNN piece, which just assumes that most female expats in Thailand are trailing wives. (Expat Ladies in Bangkok is a fairer and better resource, by the way. It acknowledges the many trailing wives who make up its readership, while also assuming that many readers are there on their own or are breadwinners in their families, the driving forces behind why those families are in Bangkok at all).

There's also this (yet it does acknowledge the need of things to change - it doesn't take the issue with a grain of salty acceptance), this (not a fan) and this, which does treat it as a two-gender issue, but the example in the lede is still a woman moving for a man and his job.

A cursory Google search for "trailing spouse" will turn up article after article in which lip service is paid to male trailing spouses, but the ledes, examples and basic assumptions still seem to be that of women taking such a role. One is actually called "Trailing Wife", and all firsthand accounts are written by women in that role.

When women see images of expat men that evoke bars, cars, offices and women, and then see images of expat women that evoke coffee mornings, play groups, book clubs and directing housekeepers, and when advice for expats aimed at men is all about work and travel, and advice aimed at trailing spouses is all aimed at women, it's not hard to internalize those images to the point where that's just what you picture when you picture an expat of either gender. And yes, it may well be a part of what keeps women from going after these jobs, or just making the jump.

Single women are more likely to not want to stay that long if the dating scene doesn't work in their favor:

Already covered this here and here.

Women are "not as adventurous as men":

I think this is straight-up bullshit. I'm only including it here because I've heard it said. From a friend of mine, no less (Taiwanese and male, if it matters). A friend I've lost touch with for unrelated reasons, but still.

It's just not true.

And so, now what?

I've become more aware of these issues recently, and thought to myself: OK, I can write about why this might be the case, but am I prepared to back it up, and to do a better and more thorough job of writing posts of interest to expat women, especially those in Taiwan, who are here independently or who are breadwinners? Women who are the driving force behind why they are here, rather than trailing behind (again, nothing intrinsically wrong with that)? Am I prepared to try harder to even things out a little bit?

Yes, I am. Although I'm not here on a cushy expat job, and have never lived that kind of lifestyle, I am here through my own maneuvering and I am a breadwinner. I may not be uniquely qualified, but I am a voice.

That's one of my resolutions for the new year: more articles for the expat women in Taiwan who are here of their own volition. Let's see if I can keep to that.

No comments: