Women Expatriates: A Research History

Shortland, Susan (2014) Women Expatriates: A Research History. In: Research Handbook on Women in International Management. Edward Elgar.


This chapter traces the history and provides a critical review of the extant literature on women’s participation in expatriation. It begins by reviewing the literature from the 1980s, examining Nancy J. Adler’s seminal work and how her three key ‘myths’ (relating to supply and demand, namely that women do not want international careers, organizational reluctance to send women abroad and presumed lack of host country acceptance of women expatriates) provide explanations for their minimal expatriate representation (just 3 per cent in the early 1980s) and set the scene for over three decades of female expatriate research. The following three sections examine the female expatriate literature on these themes in depth and in so doing provide analysis at the individual, organizational and societal levels. They preview evidence concerning the individual choices that women make and the effect of family constraints upon these; organizational decision-making, particularly in relation to expatriate selection; and the effects of societal cultures (at home and abroad) on women’s expatriate participation. These issues are framed theoretically, set within the global context, and within women’s participation in international management, more generally.

While women’s expatriate representation has increased over the years, they still remain in the minority, comprising around one-fifth of the expatriate population today (Brookfield, 2012). This proportion has changed little over the last decade, suggesting that this may represent the limit of female international assignment participation. Men dominate expatriation in countries such as Japan. Although firms based in the Asia-Pacific are beginning to send more women on assignment (Anon, 2007), where considerable participation by Japanese and other Asian organizations is included in survey data, for example ORC Worldwide (2007), female expatriate participation is lower (Thang, MacLachlan and Goda, 2002). By comparison, Asia-Pacific headquarters-based organizations comprise only a small percentage of respondents in Brookfield’s (2012) survey which records higher female expatriation. The academic research into women’s expatriation reflects the predominance of Western women from North America, Europe and Australasia going on assignment (Shortland and HUTCHINGS 9781781955024 (M3343) (G).indd 18 15/01/2014 11:08 Women expatriates: A research history 19 Altman, 2011) and hence the experiences of female expatriates from these regions form the main focus of this chapter. However, moving beyond Adler’s themes, this chapter also examines institutional factors and their impact on women’s entry into, and support within, expatriate roles. The chapter concludes with a critical review of what we actually know about women expatriates (surprisingly little after 30 years) (Shortland and Altman, 2011). It includes the effects of organizational interventions, the changing nature of expatriate assignments and gendered issues that potentially hinder or alternatively facilitate women’s international mobility, ending with a call for theoretically framed further research.

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