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When Men Trail Along

Among expats sent on foreign assignments, international women are still "the odd man out". However, such figures don’t include many expatriate women who find a job abroad on their own. In both cases, international women, as well as their spouse, may face unexpected issues – find out more below.
Sometimes men follow their wives abroad and become the homemaker.

"Trailing Husbands"                                          

While expat businesswoman Amy noticed that a disproportionate number of female assignees were single, her husband André (30) had little difficulty in accepting his unusual status as a male "trailing spouse". He is a literary scholar focusing on comparative studies of European literature, especially from Britain and France. After completing his Ph.D. with honors, he is currently working as an independent researcher.

He knows that following his wife to Japan may reduce his chances of ever getting a tenure-track position in the field, but he enjoys having the freedom to do the things he loves. "There’s not much money to be made by analyzing the 18th-century sentimental novel," André says with a grin.

Then he adds: "When we joke around, I often call Amy the capitalist in our relationship. She’s bringing home the bacon, and I get to be the intellectual. I could also imagine becoming a stay-at-home dad one day. I’m the oldest of five kids, so I have plenty of experience at baby-sitting. Of course, I’d have to switch my copy of Dangerous Liaisons for picture books for a while."

Employers’ Support for Expat Partners

Male expat partners, such as André, are still the exception to the proverbial rule. However, Amy and he were pleased to receive support from Amy’s employer. The HR department provided André with cultural seminars about living in Japan, as well as a crash course in Japanese for beginners. "They’d even have given me career counseling, and they offered us help with sorting out my work permit if I should need it."

Some of the expat women Amy has met in Tokyo were happy for the couple when she told them about her great employer, but others seemed discontent or jealous. They felt that the small number of male spouses received more attention and advice than the "traditional" expat women who were simply expected to shoulder the burden for the sake of relationship and family.

No matter whether the judgment of Amy’s friends was completely fair, there are indeed a number of ways to support both men and women who accompany an international assignee. However, due to the cost and effort of such measures, not all HR departments may be forthcoming with offering their help.

Some may also "outsource" this task to relocation agencies. Their services may not always be up to standards when the HR department – that pays them – has started penny-pinching. However, such ways of cost-cutting may backfire in the future.

The number of assignees with a spouse and/or kids has been dropping in the past few years. One major reason for this tendency is the fact that the partners of potential expats are unwilling or unable to handle the challenge to their own income and career. A more supportive environment would thus increase the pool of potential candidates for long-term assignments.

Moreover, among those who do go abroad, partner resistance, family issues, and the spouse’s career (or lack thereof) remain some of the biggest reasons why assignments end up failing. Both women and men may be happier about being sent abroad, as well as able to better cope with arising difficulties, if their partner feels adequately supported and has their back.

How Employers Can Help

Here are some areas in which expat spouses – regardless of their gender – should ask for help from the partner’s employer. As a first step, it is especially important to work together as a team, so the traveling spouse can make these requests with the expat’s full support:

  • direct communication between the HR department and the spouse
  • look-see visits and fact-finding trips before the assignment
  • language classes
  • cultural training  
  • help upon arrival (e.g. for  enrolling the kids in school or sorting out the paperwork)
  • career counseling
  • advice on getting a work permit
  • adapting the spouse’s CV for job hunting abroad
  • educational opportunities

Many an expat spouse might have been able to avert their marital crisis if they had received such help from the very beginning. It could be useful to remind employers that an expat with a happy partner will be more productive and enthusiastic about their assignment.