Accompanying Partners on Expatriation: The Male Perspective

Traditional gender roles imply a scenario in which the male partner is employed and fulfills the task of a breadwinner in the family, while the female is in charge of raising kids and upholding the household. In most developed countries, such gender role distinctions are much less prevalent today, because working women are perceived as a societal norm, and male partners are encouraged to fulfill an equitable role in bringing up children and sharing household duties.

Following the general trend of progress in female employment status, the area of expatriation has seen a continuous trend of increasing numbers of female international assignees. For example, the Brookfield 2012 survey indicates that the percentage of female assignees continues to rise: compared to the first five years of the report, the last five years have shown an increase of 6% in the female expatriate population. Moreover, one of my previous posts considered the rising issue of dual-career couples, in which trailing spouses are less willing to give up a career of their own in exchange for un- or underemployment while accompanying their expatriate partner. Hence, the work-life empowerment of women is evident and drives changes in gender role perceptions. At the same time, flexibility in male gender roles seems to increase at a slower pace. Some good food for thought here is a recent study by Nina Cole (2012), who explored the ‘unique’ role of males as expatriate accompanying partners.

Cole (2012) carried out a field study of 45 male expatriate accompanying partners, concluding that even though male partners were comfortable with their role, society around them found it difficult to understand their status. Although it has been common in the expatriation field to acknowledge the importance of expatriate spouse/partner satisfaction in relation to expatriation success, and the issues that accompanying partners face (e.g. Lazarova, Westman and Shaffer, 2010; Takeuchi, Yun and Tesluk, 2002), some topics specifically relevant to male partners can be highlighted. Building on the previous research suggestions, Cole tried to identify how male partners feel about the negative perceptions of female breadwinner families, whether the norm of male breadwinners interferes with finding employment abroad, and their needs for employer-provided assistance.

The results indicate that male partners adjusted well to their status of accompanying female expatriates and being financially dependent on their wives. However, supporting the notion that the role attitudes and expectations of many people have not changed much and still tightly link to traditional views, the study found that others – including male expatriates, female partners, locals and hiring managers – appear to be less comfortable with such cases. As a result, this social discomfort was perceived to increase isolation of male expatriate partners. For example, the study participants indicated a feeling of isolation due to belonging to a relatively small group, as there was a lack of access to interaction with other males in the same situation, and existing female partner groups were considered inappropriate.

As to employment issues, 85% of the study participants belonged to dual-career families. While they indicated their will to work in the foreign country they also faced numerous challenges to do so. Research (e.g. Forret, Sullivan and Mainiero, 2010) suggests that most male partners, in addition to the normal relocation stressors, will experience higher levels of stress associated with disruptions of their career. As social role theory (Eagly, 1987) would imply, work is a major element of the traditional male role, which explains the urgency for male partners to find employment abroad. In addition, given all the employment obstacles of visa restrictions, cultural and language barriers, lack of available positions, and preferences for local employees, the matter of male partner employment is an evident issue. Moreover, as Cole’s (2012) study indicates, the male participants only rarely reported on getting any assistance and support from their female partners’ employers.

All in all, there are some implications to be drawn from this study. Cole (2012, p. 322) notes that ‘just as there were significant changes to the roles of women in the twentieth century, it may be that the roles of men will evolve during the twenty-first century’. This notion suggests that the negative perceptions towards males’ ‘uncommon’ roles as expatriate accompanying partners may simply be a temporary phenomenon as the growing flexibility of gender roles will continue to evolve. As for practical implications, it is evident that employers should provide specific assistance to accompanying male partners in meeting their peer group and to improve employment networking.

Further reading:

Cole, N. D. (2012). Expatriate accompanying partners: the males speak. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, 50, 308-326.

Eagly, A. (1987). Sex differences in social behavior: A social-role interpretation. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ.

Forret, M.L., Sullivan, S.E. & Mainiero, L.A. (2010). Gender role differences in reactions to unemployment: Exploring psychological mobility and boundaryless careers. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31, 647-666.

Lazarova, M., Westman, M. & Shaffer, M. A. (2010). Elucidating the positive side of the work-family interface on international assignments: A model of expatriate work and family performance. Academy of Management Review, 35, 93-117.

Takeuchi, R., Yun, S. & Tesluk, P.E. (2002). An examination of crossover and spillover effects of spousal and expatriate cross-cultural adjustment on expatriate outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 655-666.

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