Eight “best of” tips for 8 March: in honor of International Women’s Day, we want to celebrate the adventurous spirit and achievements of all women who started a new life in another country. Our #ExpatChatLive team on our Twitter account has been asking women working abroad about their experiences all day long.
And in a series of interviews, expat women from around the globe have shared their personal stories and advice for making the most of life and work abroad.
Be open to new experiences.
Life abroad requires flexibility first and foremost: deciding to make the big move often means re-inventing yourself. It’s not only about adding a new language to your skill set, adjusting to another culture, or learning to appreciate an unfamiliar destination: unless you’re a lucky lottery winner, you have to earn a living after all.
The job market in your new location could be completely different; potential employers might look askance at someone with a temporary visa, or traveling spouses might be struggling with giving up their previous career.
As Simone, an expat spouse turned entrepreneur, puts it: “Be prepared to get involved in things you may not have considered before.” Little did she know that she’d go from working in finance to teaching English to raising two daughters to successfully running her own company overseas!
Build up an international network of business contacts.
Re-inventing yourself is a lot easier if you know the right people to nudge you into the right direction. Sometimes, women can be a little too reticent to put themselves “out there”. Modestly, we assume that excellent qualifications and hard work speak for themselves. Alas, that’s not necessarily the case — we need a community of working women and, more generally, of savvy professionals to support us.
Emily, a British expat now working as a manager at the Munich head office of InterNations, describes how she developed her professional network over time, using various channels: university, work, seminars, travels, trade fairs and exhibitions, different expat and business groups, etc. “My contacts live all across the globe,” she says, “but that’s the beauty of the world today, it’s so easy to stay in touch!”
Speak to women on the ground who have done what you (want to) do.
Female role models are important, but they don’t always have to be world leaders, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, or human rights activists. Inspiration works in smaller ways, too. Sometimes, it helps to talk to someone who’s already where you see yourself and find out how she did it.
These women can tell you all about dream destinations and dream jobs: how they ensured a smooth transition, country-wise and career-wise; if they enjoy living there; what the working conditions are like, and if there are equal career opportunities for men and women. Perhaps you can find another expat woman willing to mentor you — until it’s time for you to be a mentor in turn. You might be surprised to find that you — yes, you — are someone’s role model.
Don’t hesitate to get expert advice.
“Understanding the vast differences in business cultures you discover abroad does give you a huge amount to offer when you return home”, Emily, the start-up manager, stresses.
“Communication in Germany is a lot more direct. One says exactly what one means!” She laughs. “This can take a while to get used to, but it’s certainly efficient.”
It may take you a while, too, to master such little (or not so little) cultural differences, let alone the language barrier. Until you’ve become the expert, don’t hesitate to ask local experts — career coaches or recruiters — for advice, especially for writing up your CV and preparing for job interviews.
Know what you are worth.
No matter if you are an international student, an expat in between jobs, or a traveling spouse: volunteering abroad can be an immensely enriching experience. In practical terms, you continue to grow your global network, and activities like fundraising or event management expand your skill set and help you gain work experience. Above all, it’s very rewarding on a personal level. What could be more satisfying than working to help others rather than to add a profit margin to a corporate balance sheet?
However, volunteering isn’t for everyone, but women may have internalized the message to put others first. Simone — who used to volunteer, too — says: “I know plenty of women who refused to volunteer for organizations because they knew what their input and work ethic were worth. Stand up for what you believe in.”
Make sure your partner knows your expectations.
Love is one of the most common motivations for relocating, your spouse gets a great job offer abroad, or the love of your life happens to live overseas. While both men and women follow their heart across oceans and borders, it’s predominantly women taking this step.
Amongst the things we do for love, giving up your old life and home is definitely one of the grand gestures. While there’s nothing wrong with that, you should make sure your partner is onboard with you. “You need to agree upon how you can support each other,” Simone counsels.
Traveling spouses may fall into the trap of assuming the responsibility for everything to do with the domestic and the kids. And even the most hopeless romantics shouldn’t neglect their personal support network, isolating themselves socially in a strange country.
Treasure your friends.
Rebecca, a New Zealand expat who moved to Oman in order to start her own travel agency, calls being separated from her family by 13,000 kilometers her greatest struggle. Plenty of expat women probably sympathize with her plight. Just saying hi to your dad or asking after your auntie’s health suddenly involves juggling time zones or dealing with dodgy internet connections.
That’s all the more reason to build a second (third, fourth, etc.) “Team You” to share interests with, celebrate successes together, and have a shoulder to cry on. The popularity of expat groups for women only proves how important female friendships are.
“The upside of life abroad is that your expat friends become instant family to help you through it,” Simone believes. “The friendships we have made along the way make all the downsides totally worthwhile.”
Believe in yourself.
A specialist for off-road travel and mountain safaris in the Arabian Desert, Rebecca is clearly the adventurous type. “Many people struggle with the idea of an independent women living and working abroad, especially in Oman, but I find it very liberating,” she says about moving to the Middle East and building a business from scratch. “Just don’t hesitate to accept new challenges.”
While we needn’t all drive a SUV through sand dunes to enjoy our new-found independence, we should take Rebecca’s words to heart. All the women we’ve interviewed express similar sentiments in slightly different words, describing themselves as more self-confident than ever.
“It’s not always easy, but you have to jump right in,” says Carla, a digital designer from Portugal, who’s made the jump to the UK. Or, as Emily puts it very memorably: “Self-doubt stinks.”
(Image credit: 1), 3), 7), 8) iStockphoto 2), 4), 5), 6) Pexels)