Six years ago I uprooted my life and moved to Barcelona, Spain. When I landed I did not speak any Spanish or have any connection to the country. Slowly, over time, I have put down roots, learned the language, and worked in international environments. I have worked for three different companies in my time in Spain. One was German owned and quite diverse in terms of national origin. One was a Spanish company, but was still quite diverse, and the current company I work for while diverse in terms of background, is an American owned company. I was not sent by a company to work in Spain. I was a self-selecting expatriate. I have seen both men and women who moved abroad to work in Spain. The difference in experience based on national origin and gender, is striking.
While the United States does attempt to be progressive about creating opportunities for female leadership, the #MeToo movement has shown that there is still a long way to go. Women from around the country shared their stories of everything from sexual harassment to sexual misconduct to rape in and around their workplace. This movement does not stop when women move abroad.
In my first job in Spain, I had a female manager. She was the person who hired me. I respected her greatly, and now count her as a friend. She was of British origin. She managed a team of British, Swedish, and eventually French employees. I was struck by the way she was treated as a manager. The management team greatly valued her tough demeanour. However, male employees working under her often bristled at her leadership. I immediately saw this as sexist. Looking at the country of origin of the employees who reacted in this way, we as American see them as progressive on these issues. We would not expect a Swedish person to treat a female manager any differently than a male manager. However, I regularly saw it. I started to think that perhaps the veneer of progressivism based on background, is mostly that–a veneer.
Later, I worked for a small Spanish startup. One of my colleagues was an American woman. Another of my colleagues was a British man. They did not work in the same department. The British man was accused by the American woman of sexual harassment. This sexual harassment was not only directed at her but also at others. The Spanish owner of the company woefully mishandled the situation. He sat down both employees in a room and asked them to speak. This was an incredibly inappropriate response. Instead of following a documented procedure, he put both people in a room and did not take the woman’s claims seriously.
Moran, Abramson, Remington, and Moran, discuss in Managing Cultural Differences, the difficulties that women leaders have in being seen as appropriate choices for overseas promotions (2014, p. 159). Many times women are overlooked because of patriarchal ideas about the need for men to protect women. With the rise of #MeToo, I would argue that sexual harassment and misconduct is a universal issue. Like many other areas, America seems to be a leader in the subject. In my experiences, the difficulties faced by female leaders in Western Europe are the same kinds of issues they would face in America. The importance of having female leaders in an international context is integral to enacting change. Women should not be kept from overseas assignments because working abroad is somehow uniquely dangerous for women. Quite the contrary, having expatriate women leaders abroad helps normalize the concept in general. I also believe that American feminist activism in the workplace, and the demand for better work conditions for women can be one of America’s greatest exports.
Moran, R. T., Abramson, N. R., & Moran, S. V. (2014). Managing Cultural Differences (9th ed.). Oxford: Routledge.