Do female expats experience a greater level of discrimination?

Exclusion from social activities and insults in the workplace are common even in multinational businesses, says Professor Dr Benjamin Bader

Do female expats experience a greater level of discrimination?

The experience of women in the workplace has been in the news across the globe in recent months. But one aspect of gender equality remains significantly under-reported – whether expat workers are more likely to be victims of discrimination, and whether being female is a factor in this.

In a recent study conducted with colleagues, we investigated how female expatriates experience gender discrimination in the workplace, in particular with regard to behaviours and workplace and cultural norms in the host country.  

Previous research on this topic has often been ambiguous and even contradictory, with some studies finding no discrimination – with the only conclusion being that women were treated differently because of their status as expatriates rather than being female – while other studies detected discriminatory behaviour based purely on the fact that an assignee is a female.

Our study empirically compares experiences over a large set of host countries with different levels of institutional discrimination against women. In total, 160 expatriates from western Europe and the US on assignment in 25 host countries participated in the survey. 

The results confirmed that female expatriates experience higher levels of workplace discrimination and harassment than male expatriates. Moreover, discrimination and harassment are indeed particularly strong in countries with high levels of institutional discrimination.  

In other words, when a company assigns a woman to a country that tolerates or even fosters gender discrimination, female expatriates are likely to be affected by that. Instead of being treated according to their level of qualification and hierarchy, women may be reduced to their gender role. This phenomenon occurred not only in the country in general, but also directly in the workplace – in the subsidiary of their western company’s employer. 

For instance, 30 per cent of women stated that they were often excluded from social activities at work because of their gender. A total of 41 per cent have been insulted at work because of their gender at least once, and 4 per cent even reported experiencing physical violence against them.

A common reaction to discrimination and harassment is often to feel higher levels of general frustration and other negative outcomes – such as job satisfaction and work engagement. Our findings confirm this logic: expatriates who experience gender harassment in the workplace report that they are less satisfied with their job. This has various implications for companies and their global mobility practice. 

A practical question is how companies can best deal with these findings. While one option would be to not assign women to certain countries in the first place, this would be a form of selection discrimination and would send the wrong signal to the subsidiary in the respective country. Instead, employers should improve their diversity management strategies and engage in sensitisation for the topic; through workshops or training, for example. This is also a chance to provide the workforce with perceived organisational support, which is crucial to make employees feel that their employer truly cares about their wellbeing. 

Especially in countries with a high level of institutional discrimination, it is essential that head offices credibly show a zero-tolerance strategy for discrimination and harassment abroad. Better communication of the company’s values and beliefs and a broader education – along with specific training – may be a good start.  

Such training may also involve having people work in mixed teams and regularly reflecting on their experiences with a coach. Employees who are used to environments that tolerate the discrimination of women may not automatically be willing or able to change their behaviour right away. Employers should reflect on the situation in each host country and determine whether local customs are in line with their corporate values and beliefs.

While you may allow for a certain transition period when first fully enforcing this strategy, host country managers who still engage in discrimination need to be displaced, to credibly show that any such behaviour is not welcome or tolerated in the company. This may not change everything for the better, but it can be a useful first step.

Professor Dr Benjamin Bader is an academic partner and strategic adviser to the RES Forum, and professor of strategic management and organisation at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany

For more on the research, see Bader, B, Störmer, S, Bader, A K, and Schuster, T (2018). ’Institutional discrimination of women and workplace harassment of female expatriates: Evidence from 25 host countries’. Journal of Global Mobility, 6(1)