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Research update: female minority expatriates

Kendra Mirasol

When Kendra Mirasol and Charisse Kosova of IOR Global Services noticed more minority women going abroad, they wondered if minority status made expat assignment easier. Since good expat research is hard to come by, they decided to conduct their own investigation. The focus: female minority women going abroad for business.

A study can’t get much more specific than that, which meant preliminary research included only 25 respondents, 13 of whom went through extensive interviews.

When they presented their findings at the Families in Global Transition conference in March, the numerical data was unsurprising:  “Is the overseas assignment a developmental part of your career plan?” 83 percent said yes. “Did any of the company’s preparation focus on female minority issues?” 89 percent said no.

Instead, the most interesting results from their research came from the anecdotes collected through extended interviews. Here are some quotes from female minority expats that Kendra and Charisse presented:

“People assumed I was Filipino and had married my husband because I was his maid. It fit their sense of order.”

“Initially [the office] thought I was a new graduate. The older men didn’t understand that Asian women look younger than they are.”

“If a female minority is on expat assignment, she’s already been through the hoops. She’s proved herself in many ways. You’re already part of a population that is more resilient and resourceful. You know how to figure you way out of a box.”

“Everyone stares at you like a rock star. … Sometimes enough is enough!”

In the presentation, Kendra and Charisse said that minority women were rarely “selected” to go abroad. Instead, they had to actively request for the career opportunity. They also found that minority women had a multitude of skill sets to help navigate majority-minority cultural lines (more in the Q&A below). Some women interviewed used the minority status to their advantage, which meant allowing male co-workers to become a “fatherly” figure to them, or using their female gender to demonstrate that they were “non-threatening” corporate figures.

Kendra and Charisse also shared stories of women who no longer felt like “minorities” outside of the United States. One of the quotes they shared: “In the U.S. the color of your skin is the ‘headliner.’ It didn’t feel this way in Sweden.'” One of the audience members, a black female who was an expatriate wife, said that in the U.S. she was seen as black, but while living in China, she was simply “American.”

Kendra Mirasol

Kendra Mirasol

I was so fascinated with the research that I caught up with Kendra Mirasol, one-half of IOR’s research team. Based out of Chicago, IOR is an intercultural consulting firm. Kendra has extensive experience living and working abroad, including expat assignments in Germany and Japan.

How did you focus on a topic as specific as expatriate minority women?
Expat women going on assignment has increased by about 20 percent now. In the training rooms of IOR, there were many more women coming in. Many of them were African-American, Latino-American… we thought, what is it about this unique combination of women that makes them either attracted, or being sent on assignments?

What makes minority women unique expats?

Minority women have had to deal with minority-majority cultures in their home cultures already so they’ve had to navigate through those different cultures. And when you go on expat assignment, it’s an extension of that very same skill.

Why are more minority women going abroad?
They are raising their hands more to go abroad. Most of the participants in the survey put themselves into the pool and said, “This is going to be a good thing for my career.”

What helps minority women the most when going on expat assignment?
You really have to get the senior management behind them. There was one case where a CEO actually made a video [shown to the office] of this woman and said, “Ms. Smith is going to be in the Shanghai office, she has got this role,” and so she was placed at a very high level in the hierarchy. Her role in the organization was very explicit, and people respected it. And she had very few problems. Others who didn’t get that type of support or introduction, they weren’t as effective.

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