Living abroad and earning more can be the dream come true for many women. With the rise of solo female travel and increased autonomy of women, expat and nomadic lifestyles become a new norm for a myriad of young and not so young professionals. In this article, I wanted to explore the question “Why women become expats?” as I know from personal experience how hard it is to cut the cord with everything familiar and live in a new place.
My personal expat story began in 2003 when I followed my ex-partner to Ethiopia after he got a job there as a Resident Engineer on a civil construction project. It was a difficult and rewarding time. I was very lonely and desperate, feeling overwhelming guilt for leaving my only child with my mum because I couldn’t have him with me. You can imagine, I still pay emotional tax for that period by trying to overcompensate for the time I was not at home with him. However, with the years, I learned to practice self-compassion by remembering why I did take the decision to leave in the first place. At the end of the day, I was my biggest judge.
I knew many women go through the same and could imagine the struggles they face. The times had changed, and I know that the reasons that make women become female expats must be different. I asked several of my expat women friends and women in Facebook groups to share their stories. Their answers inspired and made me sad at the same time.
But First, Is There a Difference Between an Expat and a Nomad?
An expat is “someone who decides to live abroad for a specified amount of time without any restrictions on origin or residence”, says Malte Zeeck, the co-CEO of InterNations, the largest expat network in an article published by BBC. That does sound much like a description of a nomad, right? The modern nomad is a digital entrepreneur who, often after years of working in their home country, decides to build a location-independent business.
Angelique Slob, a Dutch woman with 20 years of experience as HR manager who founded Hello Monday Club, says her previous career was not fulfilling anymore. “The career transition and the more unsettled lifestyle (and building a huge international network) will help me improve my financial situation on the long term, where my old career would at one point have slowed down for sure.”
Lifestyle Is Essential, Money Are Secondary
It seems that having a better lifestyle is the main reason for both – expats and nomads – to live and work abroad. Traditionally, people became expats for better financial prospects and often the women were ‘trailing spouses’, as defined by Atlas Wealth Management, the Australian financial adviser for expats. These days, it seems most of the women take the step for their own career longevity not to follow their partner in his career development (which was my case).
This is what Elitsa Lozanova did several months ago when she moved alone to Lausanne, Switzerland, accepting the promotion her company offered. “Executive position in a multinational company in Bulgaria may ensure a more luxurious lifestyle than the similar level in Switzerland. However, in a country like Switzerland, there are more professional opportunities and the quality of daily life is better. This provides a different level of comfort and satisfaction”, she justified her decision.
The Number of Female Expats Will Double
IMG, the provider of expat health insurance plans, reported in its 2018 review that more than ever expats have used their products, with clients residing in over 200 countries. The review also states that most of the expats are between 24 and 44 old. The number of expats is expected to increase with each year, reaching an impressive number of 60 million (!!!) people worldwide. What is more remarkable is that the number of women expats will double in 2019 in comparison with 2018. This must be one of the reasons for the emerging new start-ups like Behere, a company whose mission is to reinvent the female expat experience, as Afar Magazine outlines.
The (Still) Existing Pay Gap
But why women leave their families and face the challenges of starting from a zero in a new place? Well, it is not exactly a zero. HSBC unveils an interesting reality in its 2018 Expat Explorer Survey. The survey states that most of the female expats increase their average income with 27% by making the move to the new country (men’s income goes up by 23%). Yet, the striking fact is that they are paid 37% less (what! why?!) than their male colleagues. In the same report, women proved to have a busier social life as expats than when they were back home.
Personality Traits That Expats Must Have (or Develop)
On the other hand, is everyone cast to be an expat? Most of the Australian women who took part in 2018 Expat Insight Survey said that they moved abroad because they wanted a new challenge. To enjoy your expat or nomadic life, you need to be an adventurer and be able to face the challenges with resilience.
There are more than 4 essential personality traits that make expat succeed but even just those speak a lot. Anna Radulovski from Coding Girls says her curiosity, adventurous and ambitious spirit made her move to new countries. Admittedly, starting a business as a female expat is a very challenging task. “At first, people don’t often take you seriously, they are sceptical about that you can make it happen, so you need to go an extra mile to earn their trust and respect.”
Sarah and Cooper, my Australian friends who live in London (check their blog Travel Live Learn, they make top-notch travel videos too), took the chance to move to the UK for two reasons. They wanted to have the chance to travel and build their international career skills. It wasn’t always easy. “London can still be quite a male-dominated landscape and I find some attitudes are old-fashioned,” Sarah says.
The Hidden Struggles Behind the Curtain of the Dream Life
A member of the Facebook group Female Digital Nomads wrote
“I find myself feeling stuck and lonely and instead of trying to make connections
The response to her post from the other women in the group was astounding. Most of them shared that it is difficult to make new friends and they must force themselves to go out to places that facilitate social life.
The same is true for expat women. Robyn Greyling, a South African who has been an expat for tens of years, confesses “I become an introvert, and for someone who is normally bubbly, and babbles, this is a struggle. Family are in different time zones, friends’ lives move on, and you constantly feel a little isolated. “
Robyn is part of the Expat Women – A World of Opportunities Facebook group that has almost eleven thousand members. It is reasonable to suggest that the membership will grow exponentially as more and more women decide to live as expats or nomads.
The Economic Benefits Families Can Have Living and Working Abroad
The economic incentives of expatriate life can be enticing for women and men alike. Families, like the one of my friend Dana from Ukraine, chose to take their children abroad following the father’s job. This is the only chance they have to provide financial stability for the family.
Kathleen, an American residing in Australia with her husband, started living as an expat in Germany 25 years ago. Because they get free housing from her husband’s employer, they benefited financially from living abroad. They spend the extra money on travelling but nothing can substitute being close to family and friends. “We miss living closer to family and it’s hard living so far away because it takes so long and is so expensive to get home,” she explains.
For whatever reasons women change their lives, after fighting the difficulties and overcoming their own limitations, they are rewarded. Sometimes is with better financial future, other times with exciting lifestyle. Elitza Stoilova is a woman who, for 17 years, climbed the corporate ladder from the position of an animator to the one of a General Hotel Manager on the Northern Mariana Islands. Now, back home in Bulgaria, she founded and manages a chatbot agency Umni for the tourism and hospitality industry to help businesses keep up to date with technology and client’s expectations.
“The value for me was more in the professional and personal growth when working and living in a different cultural environment”, she says. And adds, “The life I had was exciting, colourful, challenging and rewarding.”
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