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From Chennai to Shanghai: Expatriate Executive Women Working in Asia

Reprinted with permission of Worldwide ERC®, from the February 2008 issue of MOBILITY

Focusing on Asia in her first expatriate executive women exposé, Martins brings us up close and personal with seven expatriate women based in Asia, asking them about their roles, their experiences, and their advice to employers, human resource professionals, and other expatriates.

By Andrea Martins

Expatriate executive women have long been an enigma. Always the minority, they tend to get overlooked in conversations and focus groups about international assignments. We know that they are out there, but we are never quite sure who they are, where they are, what they are doing, or what constructive advice they would offer from their expatriate experiences.

It is time to shed more light on expatriate executive women, given that the “Global Relocation Trends—2006 Survey Report,” released by GMAC Relocation Services, Warren, NJ, reported that 20 percent (or one in five) expatriate postings now are held by a woman (compared to a historical average of only 15 percent). The same report showed that the percentage of married men on employer-sponsored international assignments is now down to 52 percent—the lowest in the history of the 14-year survey. Slowly but surely, it appears that the expatriate population may be starting to change.

To learn more about expatriate executive women working in Asia, I talked to seven women about their roles, their experiences, and their advice.


Nancy Reisig

Based in Chennai, India, for the past two and half years, Nancy Reisig (American) is vice president, human resources (HR), for the India operations of Ford Motor Company, Dearborn, MI. She is responsible for HR practices across Ford organizations in India—including the manufacturing plant, Ford Information Technology Services (the hub for the company’s IT and engineering initiatives in India and the Asia-Pacific region), and the Ford Business Service Center (a business process center for Ford’s global operations) At the time of publication, Reisig had completed her assignment and returned to the United States.

Benefits of the role: Being an expatriate has “been a wonderful experience, involving active participation in the organization’s growth and helping to develop the local team. Being part of the dynamic India HR scenario and being involved with all aspects of the business has been fulfilling. In fact, I [have] really enjoyed the opportunity to ‘mentor’ one of our dealers.”

Highlights/successes: “A highlight has been seeing Ford India honored for its safety practices as it has achieved the highest rung of Ford safety index; [and] its good work culture reflected in ranking in the top 25 in 2007’s Hewitt ‘Best Employers of India’ study. A success story has been developing local employees to take over roles previously held by expats.”

Challenges: “Some of the challenges include dealing with the dynamic employment conditions here as India is a buyer’s market for employees, achieving the right marriage of the Ford global practices with local realities and conditions. From the standpoint of being a woman, it has not been that difficult here primarily because of being a foreign woman, as well as having a title of VP. On the personal front, the main challenge is that my husband could not work here, so from a family perspective it has been difficult. However, until recently, I also had my elderly father with me here and the treatment and respect he received was really heartwarming.”

Advice to employers: “Ensure robust repatriation and career planning. Make sure that there is an opportunity to communicate frequently from home. While maintaining cost effectiveness, ensure flexibility in the expatriate policy to meet varied family circumstances. And finally, set clear goals/objectives for the assignment.”


Christa Avery

In 2006, Christa Avery (Canadian) left Thailand to join KPMG, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, the global firm specializing in audit, tax, and advisory services. Avery took on the role of associate director, Asia markets, for KPMG Australia’s practice in Sydney. The Asia markets program focuses primarily on Japan, China, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and India. Its essential purpose is to provide opportunities for KPMG’s Australia-based partners to engage in bilateral business with KPMG clients and sister firms across both inbound and outbound deal flow.

Expatriate Population

Male – 80 percent           Female – 20 percent

Source: GMAC Global Relocation Services “Global Relocation Trends—2006 Survey Report”

Benefits of the role: “The most enjoyable aspect of the role has been getting to know Australia—including the Melbourne Cup festivities! Much of my role involves domestic travel around the nation and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the people and the places. This role also allows me to maintain my network of contacts within the Asia-Pacific region—important after 15 years spent living [across Asia, in Thailand, China, Myanmar, and Cambodia].”

Highlights/successes: “Our major success has been the Australian Institute of Company Directors conference, held in Shanghai in May 2007, which KPMG sponsored. [It] brought together our clients and colleagues… to engage with over 400 participants from Australia’s largest companies (and resulted in both a market entry project into China and a Chinese investment into Australia).

“On a personal level, a major highlight was for me to accompany the Australian Minister of Trade (Warren Truss) delegation to India (Chennai, Hyderabad, New Delhi, and Mumbai). I met some really fabulous and dedicated Aussies and Indians and saw a few areas of India I normally would not have seen.”

Challenges: “In Asia, as an extroverted Western female, I was discriminated against by both local and expatriate men as ‘aggressive’ or something otherwise offensive, based on my demeanor and looks (part of the package of being six-foot-one, as well). Needless to say my dance card was not that full!

“The greatest non-work challenge for me in Australia, [has been] dealing with the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ that is prevalent in this society. Aussies respect what they term ‘battlers’—not necessarily achievers. What [other Asia-Pacific] people would hear as ‘opportunities’ or ‘synergies’ when you talk about things you are exposed to, many Aussies hear as ‘bragging,’ or somehow perceive it as threatening.

“Each time I move, the challenges are different. The adapting issues are very location-specific…. Common to all locations has been the communication challenge—be it the verbal language or body language, or cultural nuances that affect that communication.” 

Advice to employers: “Give expatriates a ‘go-to’ person—[he or she] must have a right-hand person that is not just about work, but about adaptation. Encourage the expatriate to share his or her non-native knowledge into the firm (at some level), by providing an opportunity or venue/stream to do so. Include the expatriate in at least one major social or committee grouping in the company. Introduce the expatriate to the firm over a social occasion (invite him or her out for lunch/dinner). Ensure the expatriate’s localized needs are met (be it housing, day-to-day living) by checking in regularly on that level.”

Advice to expatriates: “Think about how you are going to have a support network around you…. As soon as you get there, join sports teams, chambers of commerce, food and wine clubs, special interest clubs, and the like. Stay in touch with the ExpatWomen.com network and use the ExpatWomen site to find others who will help you. Then, help others as you’ve been helped yourself. If you find that you are not getting the most out of your experience—give more!”


Julianne Rogers

Tokyo-based Julianne Rogers (Australian) works for British Airways, London, United Kingdom, as manager for Japan and Korea. She is responsible for the commercial sales side of the Japan operation—trying to fill the two B747 airplanes that fly daily to London, the pressure of which, she admits, can be “rather intense” at times. Her responsibilities include managing, mentoring, and coaching the sales force. She also oversees British Airways’ Korean offline station.

Benefits of the role: “Living and working in a new, exciting, and vibrant country. Learning to speak the language and getting to understand a completely different and dynamic market.”

Highlights/successes: “[Only recently starting in this role, I am] still trying to come to grips with a new market, new staff, new country, and new culture.”

Challenges: “Walking to work, local lack of English, my lack of Japanese [language], and raw fish!”

Advice to employers: “Provide language training prior to arrival. Allow sufficient time to get settled (not arrive one day to begin work the next). Cross-cultural or intercultural training. Take care of all the administrative work relating to finding accommodation—visa application, banking, and the like.”

Advice to expatriates: “Seize the opportunity with both hands. It is such a privilege and a pleasure to be able to work abroad enjoying totally new experiences.”


Sarah Stuart

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the last 18 months, Sarah Stuart (American) has been the HR management systems manager, Middle East/Asia Pacific region, for oilfield services giant Baker Hughes, Houston, TX. She supports the HR staff of the region in effectively using HR management systems (HRMS) applications, and is involved in new application rollouts and process and policy development.

Benefits of the role: “The ability to travel to various locations within the region, which has been a wonderful opportunity.”

Highlights/successes: “As this is a newly-created role, a highlight of my current role is having the ability to more closely work with our internationally-based employees to help them more effectively use the HRMS applications in place, and being a resource to them to help them succeed in their roles.”

Challenges: “I do find it a bit difficult to travel to a couple of countries that I support, however, this has not hindered my ability to do my job—we simply find alternate means to train and support those employees.

“First and foremost, being away from family is difficult, as it would be in any location. Challenges specific to my location are: transportation (we have not yet bought a car), the general lack of ease in getting some things done, and my dual role as a working expatriate and an ‘expatriate wife’ (my husband also is on an international assignment with the same company).”

Advice to employers: “My job prior to this one largely involved supporting expatriates from pre-assignment through repatriation, so I have a unique perspective as I view this from an HR standpoint, as well as having now personally experienced it.

“First, have a dedicated resource for expatriates to go to for assistance. Many issues that expatriates face are quite unique, and it’s helpful to have a specific person or team to go to for help.... For example, have a dedicated resource to help with company-specific issues (paycheck, benefits, relocation questions, policy issues, taxes, and the like), and then another resource who is local that can help with local matters such as obtaining housing, local documents, and general questions to help adaptation to the new environment.

“In addition, the company should provide tax assistance, an employee assistance program (EAP), relocation services, housing assistance (including an agent where needed), uplifts (on par with your industry), and insurance services for expatriates.

“Last, it’s important to remember the accompanying family members, as well. Providing education assistance, links to activities for the spouse and children, and even a welcome or buddy system will help with their adjustment. An unhappy family makes for an unhappy expatriate, which surely will increase the chances of an unsuccessful assignment.”

Advice to expatriates: “Do your homework. There’s a lot of information on the Internet to help you adjust. Educate yourself about your new environment before you arrive to help you adjust.

“Continue learning throughout your assignment…. We [also] tell everyone to pack up twice as early as planned and bring half as much as planned.”

Expat Marital Status

Married male – 52 percent

Single male – 21 percent

Married female – 8 percent

Single female – 8 percent

Male with significant other – 7 percent

Female with significant other – 4 percent

Source: GMAC Global Relocation Services “Global Relocation Trends—2006 Survey Report”


Lesley Gibb

Lesley Gibb (Scottish) is a material resources manager in Hong Kong, China, who leads a team of Asia-based fabric technologists for a major worldwide apparel brand. She moved with her husband to Hong Kong three years ago, when she was offered her “dream job.”

Fortunately, her husband, an HR manager in manufacturing at the time, was happy to join her adventure, as he was tired of making people redundant and closing down production in the United Kingdom, as industry was increasingly moving overseas.

Benefits of the role: “[I have most enjoyed] getting to know the Asian apparel markets, which are so different from Europe, and having a skilled, hard-working team, to whom nothing is too much effort.”

Highlights/successes: “Seeing the end product using a fabric [that] I have developed is still the ultimate reward… [but] I think my main success is a new passion for textiles. After 17 years in the industry, it would be easy to get jaded, but I am inspired by the hunger for fashion and trend in Asia, and the consumers’ constant demand for the next big thing.”

Challenges: Work-wise, “working with Asian suppliers is… interesting.” Outside of work, “apartment living was a shock for me after having so much space in Northern England and Scotland... also having little personal space when out and about. Then the language, Cantonese—I am useless!”

Advice to employers: “Empathy with your situation is number one. It’s not just like starting a new job—it’s a new job in a new part of the world where nothing is familiar. If you are joining a company that has never hired from overseas before, you might want to check out how prepared they are, as well as yourself…. [In my case,] HR checked in with me regularly over the first year and my line manager is an expatriate, too, so she was really supportive.”


Basia Kruszewska

Basia Kruszewska (American) is a team integration manager for Element K, Chennai. Element K delivers “learning solutions”—training, tools, and programs—that help companies improve their business. When she arrived four and a half years ago, she was tasked with helping to create a content development team in Chennai that was similar to the team in the head office, Rochester, NY, and then to help integrate the two teams. Now, her focus is more on enabling the Chennai team to be self-sufficient—which involves a lot of training and mentoring.

Benefits of the role: “The team here is very eager to learn and very motivated. It is a pleasure to work with them.”

Highlights/successes: “When I first came here, most people in Rochester were not convinced that content development could be done in India in the same way that it was being done in Rochester. I did an initial pilot study with a small group of writers that showed that it was possible…. It was very satisfying to show that it could be done…. [It also is ] very rewarding to watch so many of my trainees begin their successful writing careers with our company.”

Top Five Asian International

Assignment Destinations

1. China – 16 percent

2. Singapore – 4 percent

3. Japan – 4 percent

4. Australia – 2 percent

5. India – 2 percent

Source: GMAC Global Relocation Services “Global Relocation Trends—2006 Survey Report”

Challenges: “The office environment is very different here. In the U.S., I had a private office that was very quiet. Here, everyone (including most of the managers and me) have cubicles rather than offices, and there is a lot of noisy interaction between people. I’m easily distracted by noise, so I had a hard time adjusting to the noise level (still do).

“[However, my biggest challenge has been] having to deal with stereotyping and resistance by people in the United States. It’s not very pleasant to hear people comment that what I’m doing is causing people in the U.S. to lose their jobs.”

Advice to employers: “Make sure that the employee doesn’t ‘fall through the cracks.’ Because I’m not on location in the U.S., I often don’t get included in a lot of the things going on back home... [but then] people [also] often forget to include me in things that go on in the India branch. So I ‘fall through the cracks’ a lot.

“Appreciate expatriates. For so many employees, relocation is not an option because of family obligations and commitments. So, if you’ve got someone who is open to relocation and travel, who is willing and able to get out of his or her comfort zone, don’t take that person for granted…. Even if an expatriate is living in beautiful company-sponsored housing with lots of perks, he or she has had the world turned upside-down, and it’s important that companies acknowledge this.

“[If possible], provide a generous travel allowance. Being able to travel all over Asia in my free time, even for just short weekend trips, has been a huge motivating factor for me to continue working here.”

Cisca Wikkeling

Cisca Wikkeling (Dutch) is the manager of the Shanghai branch of Asia Pacific Access, an Australian company with a wholly-owned subsidiary in China. Her role is to assist incoming expatriate assignees transition smoothly into Shanghai. She accomplishes this by managing a team of client account managers, counselors, immigration staff, and office staff—plus directly selling/marketing the company’s services, when time permits. 

Benefits of the role: “One of the best parts of my role is that I get to meet so many newcomers to Shanghai…. I have lived in Shanghai for six years and, during that time, I have seen people move in and out, however, we have remained in touch and my world has expanded tremendously through my work.”

Highlights/successes: “The highlights in my job are seeing the assignees make a mental transition and begin to adapt to the idea that they actually are going to benefit from moving into a new environment....”

Top Ten Tips to Expatriate Employers

  1. Appreciate your expatriates and their challenges.
  2. Give them a genuinely helpful ‘go-to’ person.
  3. Be flexible to their family circumstances.
  4. Agree on clear objectives for the assignment.
  5. Teach them how to network abroad.
  6. Pay for language training—it makes a big difference.
  7. Help them find useful websites and resources.
  8. Provide country-specific cross-cultural training.
  9. When they are abroad, keep them in the communication loop.
  10. Plan for successful repatriations.

Source: ExpatWomen.com

Challenges: “Initially, the language barrier was extremely challenging…. Getting accustomed to cultural differences in the work environment [also has been a challenge]. I come from a culture where we were taught to take responsibility for our actions. In the work culture, our Chinese colleagues are reluctant to make decisions and take responsibility. In addition, our staff are from several different countries and initially I assumed that we as Westerners all thought alike. Boy, was I mistaken!”

Stereotypes about China: “Many of our clients/assignees believe that it is difficult to make friends with local Chinese people, in part because the lifestyles are so different. I have learned, in fact, that many Chinese people are eager to make friends with [expats]. Many assignees [also] believe that they are moving to a third-world country and do not realize what a sophisticated city Shanghai is (although there are still parts of China that are more difficult to live in).”

Advice to employers: “Prepare your assignees with some sort of cross-­cultural training. Make sure they have a good start—not too many frustrations, try to give them a lot of support. And finally, encourage the assignee to make this a great adventure in his or her career.”

In Appreciation

A huge thank you to Nancy, Christa, Julianne, Sarah, Lesley, Basia, and Cisca for giving us insight into a typically underreported segment of expatriates: executive women abroad. Best wishes to all executive women working all over the globe.


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