The gender expatriation gap

The side effects of global mobility we are often unaware of.

The Eagle Huntress. This is the name of a documentary about Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl who challenges the men-exclusive tradition of eagle hunting in Mongolia. Particularly interesting in the film is the way male elders explain why women can’t hunt eagles.

Pivotal to the movie is not the local tradition per se. The keystone is the image of hunting an eagle as a powerful symbol. It means breaking barriers, enjoying the adventure and searching liberty. Keywords also associated with expatriation.

The way expatriation works for dual-career couples may easily draw an eagle-hunting picture – particularly when it comes to gender stereotypes. Not surprisingly, similar to the stereotypes used by male elders in the film.

We are all familiar with the concept of gender pay gap. According to the European Commission, in the EU it stands at 14.1%. That is, women earn on average 14.1% less per hour than men. Similarly, across the EU women are less present in the labour market than men. In 2019, 79% of men were employed, compared to 67.3% of women. An 11.8% gender employment gap. A less known, but equally informative concept.

In comparison to women living in their home countries, female expatriates’ partners are particularly vulnerable to the underlying mechanisms explaining both gaps.

According to a Permits Foundation study with expatriates, 85% of expat partners are females, and 92% have higher education (with 46% holding a masters degree or PhD qualification). The same survey shows that while 84% of partners are willing to work while abroad, only 35% of them actually do. This picture shows that female partners are more likely to be affected by the relocation than their male counterparts. What we see here is a gender expatriation gap.

This gap exists likely because the labour market for expatriates reproduces more generalised gender inequalities. Low-wage positions, lower employment rates, less money for the same job, and part-time roles are the main factors showing a gender imbalance in labour markets and social life. “Gender segregation processes in the labour market systematically offer greater advantages to men than to women, which justifies women prioritizing family” states Marja Känsälä and colleagues in this article on dual-career couples. This situation implies that female spouses often put their careers on hold in order to support the realisation of their partners’ international opportunities.

A double-edged sword

The issues faced by female partners are also more noticeable because they substantially outnumber male expats partners. However, the expatriation experience can be equally or even more problematic for male partners. Gender stereotypes can actually harm both women and men.

That is particularly true in countries where the role of husband-at-home is not seen as a proper role for men. Importantly, the reason explaining this is the same gender-based reason that explains why the vast majority of expatriates’ partners are women. Social expectations around work and family priorities are gendered: the implicit assumption is that there are things only women can do, and things only men can do. Sounds familiar? Yes, not so different from those male elders’ arguments.

Research is also insightful about male trailing partners. This study reports two key findings about them: First, being a man and not being the family breadwinner is difficult to understand for people around male partners, even if they were comfortable in this role. Second, the feeling of isolation is markedly spread among male partners. They are very few, and they find it difficult to tap into communities of female trailing partners.

So yes, some figures about expatriates’ partners speak for themselves. There is a gender mobility gap adding weight upon other gaps that mainly affect female partners. Deeply ingrained societal expectations about gender roles explain those gaps.

That’s why Aisholpan’s story is truly inspiring. Both eagle huntresses and hunters are indispensable. We need more of them – also in the context of global mobility. People challenging mainstream preconceptions open paths for realising not only individual development but especially social change.

Dr. Carlos Morales

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The Expats & Spouses Monitor, creating knowledge about expats in Germany

January 8, 2021|

The Expats & Spouses Monitor is a research project created for expats by expats. We aim to shed light on different aspects of expats life in Germany to create awareness about the challenges they face and promote international talent integration. We have collected the experiences of 864 expats from 88 nationalities living in 144 German cities.