The sexism that female expats are still having to endure

Sheila Taylor
Image caption Sheila Taylor found that Brazil was often a culture shock

When Sheila Taylor moved from the UK to Brazil for work in 2014, she says that in terms of women's equality she often felt as if she had gone back in time to the 1950s.

Ms Taylor, a writer and photographer who swapped London for Rio de Janeiro for two years, says she was forced to confront male chauvinism that the UK had given up decades ago.

One night, arguing with a friend's male colleague, a highly regarded lawyer, she says she found herself labelled a "brava", meaning that she was "out of control" for arguing with a man so forcefully.

And when a violent mugging left Ms Taylor with a bruised face, she says one male acquaintance didn't see anything wrong with making a joke about punching his own wife.

"And these examples are from the self-titled 'educated and cultured' upper middle class," adds Ms Taylor, 40.

While Ms Taylor enjoyed the actual work she did in Brazil, and returned to the UK with a fluency in Portuguese, her experience is indicative of the problems that professional Western women - educated females pursuing a career in business or another skilled profession - can continue to face when working overseas.

As recent reports show that a growing number of such women are now choosing or wishing to work abroad - including a NatWest survey revealing that women now make up 46% of all British expats, compared with 33% in 2011 - six females who have worked overseas share some of the problems they have faced.

'Want to scream'

After the tech bubble burst in Israel in 2002, Lisa Goldman was broke and desperate for work when an acquaintance approached her about a job with the Japanese branch of a global finance business.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Tokyo underground can be an uncomfortable place for women

Her job in Tokyo was intense, with lots of deadlines and extremely long hours, but these weren't the only challenges.

In regard to building a personal life in the Japanese capital, she found that neither Japanese men or male Western expats were interested in dating Western women.

Ms Goldman, now in her 40s, says: "The few single Western women I know in Tokyo seemed to have resigned themselves to being single forever.

"Quite a few succumbed to the heavy drinking culture and became alcoholics."

However, what she says made her "want to scream" was that she would see men openly reading pornographic comic books on underground trains.

"You could buy them from vending machines," says Ms Goldman.

Overall, she describes her six months living and working in Tokyo as "a bit like being a feminist forced to work in a vast, open-air pole dancing club".

Yet it is far from just Asia and South America that can present cultural problems for female Western expats.

Becky Thomas, an "expat coach" from Chicago, who advises people on how to cope with the challenges of working abroad, says that she herself found that living in Italy for four years brought some difficulties.

Image caption Becky Thomas spent four years living in Rome

"If you go into a culture where infidelity is common, and you have a value of loyalty, that's not going to sit well," she says. "It is not about a culture being right or wrong, it is about difference."

Ms Thomas, 40, encourages expat women to find coping mechanisms.

"It's important to understand that there are some things you can control, and some things you can't," she says. "If you're in a country where women are treated differently, that's something that's wired into their culture.

"What you can control is finding a way to deal with any frustration in a way that doesn't make you feel drained."

Ms Thomas also recommends maintaining relationships with fellow expats who share your value system, so as to avoid feelings of isolation.

'Unwanted attention'

Allison (not her real name), finds that working in Switzerland can occasionally be difficult for women.

A 36-year-old Canadian, she has lived in Switzerland for 11 years as a communications consultant.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Saudi Arabia can be a very alien place for female Western expats

Allison says she has encountered several sexist situations, such as preparing reports that had to be presented by male colleagues "just so that the client would listen", and being mistaken for a personal assistant.

She adds that she has found it to be normal in job interviews in Switzerland for women to be asked about personal details of their lives, including their relationship status, and any plans to start a family.

Other countries are, however, considerably more of a culture shock for female expats, such as Saudi Arabia.

Ashley (who asked that we only used her first name) moved from Toronto in Canada to the Saudi capital Riyadh for several months in 2015 to open a research unit at a medical school.

She found that she and her male colleague, who had also been sent from Canada, were not permitted to work in the same office.

To get their work done, Ashley says they had to find "little weird loopholes", such as booking official meetings.

But what she found hardest to cope with was the fact that as a woman she couldn't move around unencumbered, both in reference to access to transport and what she could wear.

In the country of Georgia, in the Caucasus region on the edge of Europe and Asia, US expat Caroline Sutcliffe says she gets "a lot of unwanted attention, simply because I'm a foreigner and female".

Image caption Caroline Sutcliffe works to promote female rights in the Caucasus region

She adds: "There is a significant lack of respect from men towards my skills, my values, and my vision."

However, Ms Sutcliffe is actually working hard to improve matters, as she runs a non-government organisation which promotes women's rights in Georgia and neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan.

She is founder of Chai Khana, which means "teahouse". It helps local female journalists produce video reports that promote female equality.

Despite the difficulties that expat women workers still face, Stacie Berdan, co-author of Get Ahead By Going Abroad: A Woman's Guide To Fast-Track Career Success, says they can gain a big benefit from working overseas.

"Not everyone wants to take those assignments, so it is a good way to break away from the pack," she says.

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