The side effects of global mobility we are often unaware of.
CODE is the name of a 2015 documentary that exposes the shortage of women in computing and explores the reasons for this digital divide. The film highlights ongoing efforts to bring in more female programmers and shows how this gap can be closed.
The scarcity of women in tech is not critical to the movie. This is just seen as a consequence of something more structural. The key point is the big impact of social and cultural habits in encouraging girls to choose “more-for-women” fields.
The way expatriation works for dual-career couples may easily draw a similar picture, particularly when it comes to gender stereotypes.
We are all familiar with the concept of gender pay gap. According to the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), it stands at 18% in 2021. That is, women in Germany earn 18 percent less per hour than men.
Similarly, in Germany, women are less present in the labour market than men. The International Labour Organization reports that in 2021, 66% of men were employed, compared to 56.8% of women. A 9.2 points gap in the labour market participation, slightly better than the 11.8% in the EU27 as a whole.
In comparison to women living in their home countries, female expatriate partners are particularly vulnerable to the underlying mechanisms explaining both gaps.
According to the Expats & Spouses Monitor, a study with more than 850 expatriates living in Germany, 88% of expat partners are females, and 98% of them have higher education (with 59% holding a master’s degree or Ph.D. qualification). The same research shows that while 84% of male expats under 64 years old are working, only 60% of female expatriates do. This means a 24 points gap, almost fifteen points above the German labour market figures. This picture shows that female partners are more likely to be affected by the relocation than their male counterparts. A gender gap magnified by expatriation.
Among other sources, the Permits Foundation provides information in the same direction using data of expatriates from all over the world.
This gender expatriation gap likely exists 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.
A double-edged sword
The issues faced by female partners are also more noticeable because they substantially outnumber male expat 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 expatriate 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.
Research is also insightful about male trailing partners. This study reports two key findings of 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 expat partners speak for themselves. There is a gender mobility gap adding weight to other gaps that mainly affect female expatriates. Deeply ingrained societal expectations about gender roles explain those gaps. As one of the protagonists of the CODE documentary put it neatly: “The reason that there’s a (computing science) gap is actually related to some really real structural factors”.
Challenging these structural mainstream preconceptions becomes crucial not only for individual professional growth but especially for social development.
The question now is: what policies are needed to prevent this gender expatriation gap from happening?
Dr. Carlos Morales and Amaia Izar de la Fuente