PwC’s recent Moving women with purpose research highlights that global mobility is in equal demand from both mothers and fathers. However, our research also shows that far fewer mothers actually experience mobility compared to fathers. And both women and men rank “women with children don’t want to go on an assignment” as the top barrier to higher levels of female representation in global mobility. These findings underline that organisations need to make sure they’re not overlooking female talent based on outdated gender stereotypes. Creating awareness of mothers with mobility experience is one small way to illustrate what assignees in your organisation look like, and overcome the effect of such stereotypes.
This week we bring you the final blog in our series from our guest PwC blogger, Sarah Morrin. In this closing instalment, Sarah shares more about her experiences of relocating with family, while also discussing how it felt to go from trailing spouse (Botswana) to leading spouse (the Middle East).
Trailing spouse blues vs leading spouse pressures
It’s often said that that the real barometer of success for a mobility experience is marriage and family. While one spouse or significant other leads the move, it’s often their partner – the ‘trailing spouse’ – who experiences a higher degree of change, because they have to re-establish their life from scratch without the familiarity of company structures and work.
When we moved to the Middle East, I was the ‘leading spouse’ – a new experience after being the ‘trailing spouse’ previously. I quickly came to understand that being the leading spouse also brings pressures, not least because I’d brought my family somewhere new to further my own my career aspirations. For me it was eye-opening to see those initial struggles from the other side – including finding the right role and being reliant on your partner – and it was important for us to be understanding and supportive of each other. From a leading spouse perspective, this meant not only being encouraging but also actively seeking out and acting on advice and opportunities to share.
With our move to Botswana, I had been able to use my PwC contacts to find a job before we relocated. While my husband didn’t have these ‘pre-connections’ in the Middle East, he soon succeeded in finding a great full-time job with a new career direction in the UAE. Among other trailing spouses I have met, the happiest are those that have used the relocation as an opportunity to do something a little different, whether it be establishing a new business, writing a book, studying for a course, or – in some cases – taking time out with the family.
But whatever the chosen option, it’s inevitable that both partners will face the pressures that come with setting up a brand new household, or difficulties in obtaining work permits for the trailing spouse. My advice is not to let these challenges discourage you from moving – but also not to underplay their impacts, especially in the early days.
Managing the move with young children: stay flexible
Without doubt, when I look back on my experience of managing a move with young children, there are things I would do differently. What we found worked was getting the children into a routine – in our case a nursery – as soon as possible. This was the best option initially, as we wanted to take a bit longer over finding the right home childminder. Having the children at nursery and settling in also gave us time to run around sorting out the basics.
However, it’s also important to stay flexible and allow yourself some space and time – which means being open with your employer. One thing I forgot to take into account is that kids get ill when they meet other children, so I needed a few days working from home to manage this.
You also need to remember that the logistics of establishing a household can be lengthy and time-consuming. For my most recent move to Dubai, I went out a month in advance to sort some of these things out before the children arrived. For Botswana, by contrast, we all moved together, spent a week on initial set-up and then worked through it. For me, the latter approach worked better.
Being away from support networks
For most people, the idea of having a baby in a different country is pretty scary - especially because they wonder how they’ll get by without their usual support networks. I had my second child while on assignment in Botswana. And while being away from family and friends at such a time is a wrench, today’s social media and videoconferencing tools make keeping in touch much easier. When you’re speaking to family in Cornwall, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re in London, Dubai or Gaborone!
Tight-knit communities characterise expat living and in both in Dubai and Gaborone, we’ve found it’s much more common than at home to meet not only your colleagues outside work, but also their families. Work social events usually include family or at least spouses, and are a great source of information, friendships and advice as you find your feet.
For fathers who may need to ‘lean in’ even more when overseas, I have found that concepts like ‘stay-at-home fathers’ or ‘shared parenting’ are still only just being understood in some areas outside work. This suggests that the workplace is now changing much more quickly than in the past. However, you still get annoying school letters addressed ‘Dear mums’ and invites to ‘mums only’ events: these are not only irrelevant in the modern context, but are also unhelpful to my efforts to act as a working role model to my young daughter. Fortunately this is changing, but it does mean more effort may be needed to show the kids that today’s mums and dads can play the same roles.
Young children adapting: don’t project your own fears onto them!
Of course, worrying about how your children will adapt to a new environment is natural and warranted. However, my experience is that to our young children, home is where mum and dad are. Our concerns about how they would integrate, find new friends and continue to play were probably the most misguided of all our worries. For both of our moves the kids have been adaptable, excited and comfortable making new friends, while also keeping in touch with the old ones and sharing their thoughts on the different countries (in their own way of course). Personally speaking, I have to remember not to project our fears onto them, and that changes that can sometimes seem challenging to an adult – like travelling to a new place on an aeroplane, speaking to grandparents on videoconferencing and settling into a new environment – are second nature to them. For example, after a recent trip to the UK, my daughter announced for the first time that she wanted to move. I was concerned, and asked: “Do you mean to the UK or back to Botswana?” The answer came back: “I want to live in the Burj Khalifa when I’m older!”
Finding the right schooling
I have seen schooling become an obsession for some parents, who have expended huge effort on trying to match qualification types, subjects and – in some cases – the quality of teaching they wanted. It’s important to remember that school selection is also a challenge back home. With younger children, we have found that any minor academic differences are strongly outweighed by the wealth of learning, appreciation and confidence our children get from exposure to different cultures and experiences. The schools or nurseries that our children attend are not only providing an academic background, but are also supporting them in becoming rounded, experienced, global citizens able to learn, share and play with those of different languages, nationalities, cultures and religions. As at home, I’ve found it’s generally best to go with your instincts when selecting a school. Research and conversations may help – but opinions are subjective, and you’re the person best qualified to find the best fit for your own child.
The ‘I hate…’ days
I’d like to sign off with one of the best pieces of advice that a friend gave me before our first move. During any mobility experience there will be ‘I hate…’ days: whole days when everything seems foreign, the simple things are difficult and all you want to do is get back to familiarity. Well, guess what: they pass. Just get through them, and be careful not to blame all the usual ups and downs of life on the country you’re in. Also, use these times as a trigger to plan something you couldn’t do at home. Living abroad can be hard, so it’s important to make extra efforts to maximise the benefits. Sometimes, a mini-escape can provide perspective. And while I love visiting family back home at Christmas, I’m also happy to replace the grey skies over the M4 to Heathrow with the blue skies of Botswana or the warmth of Dubai.
Mine is certainly not the only expatriate story out there – and I hope that in the future, there will be many more to come: male and female, mums and dads, young and old. It’s never too early or too late to experience the personal or family adventure that is global mobility!
Signing off for now…
||Sarah Morrin is a Senior Manager in PwC Middle East’s consulting practice, specialising in the Energy, Utilities and Mining sectors. As an engineer and a chartered accountant, she specialises in working at the interface between commercial and operational concerns of clients. Her core skills are in asset management optimisation, business process implementation and major contractual reviews. Sarah is passionate about international experience and has acted as a project manager and PwC consultant in the Middle East, UK, Ireland and Africa.
You can connect with Sarah on LinkedIn.