Career in Your Suitcase
A practical guide to creating meaningful work... anywhere

The male accompanying partner

This is a preview to the chapter The male accompanying partner from the book Career in Your Suitcase by Jo Parfitt.
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When in 1995 his wife’s career took him first to Turkey and then to France, Huw Francis put down his briefcase and took over the role of househusband. During this time he has created a portable career for himself and a brand new identity. His story will resonate with and inspire accompanying partners, both male and female.

The Rise of a New Breed of Expat Spouse

Despite the advent of female emancipation, women’s rights, laws against sexual discrimination and the growth of political correctness – men still usually earn more than women, rise more quickly and higher up the corporate ladder, are thought to be more career minded and have a much greater likelihood of being sent abroad as an expatriate employee. Women, on the other hand, may be thought more family- than career-oriented and more willing to let their husband’s career take precedence over theirs.

However, there are growing numbers of women who earn more and are more employable than their partners, who are more career focused, who have a more secure career, or who enjoy their job more than their partner does.
There are also men who want to stay at home with the kids while their wife goes out to work, who take a career break while the children are of pre-school age, or who accept that their partner’s career will take precedence over their own.

Increasingly, these couples too decide to move abroad, or are offered the chance to do so. The advantages of such a move can be varied and include improved lifestyle, career benefits, or an escape from unemployment, redundancy, and other unpleasant situations – much the same reasons as men take an international job and their partner follows them.

Slowly but surely the number of female expatriate employees is increasing, and some surveys have indicated that almost 23 per cent of expatriate employees are now women. Consequently, as more women do become expatriate employees, as opposed to expatriate spouses, more men are becoming accompanying spouses – though a larger percentage of female expatriate employees, compared to male expatriate employees, is not married. As shown in the introduction to this book, as many as 17 per cent of accompanying partners are now male.

Huw Francis – a new expat spouse!

Having worked as an engineer in the UK, I travelled to Hong Kong in 1992 and quickly found a job with an import/export company. A couple of job changes later and whilst studying for a postgraduate qualification in International Business I joined a management consultancy where I worked as a business manager and an associate consultant. I also met and married my Scottish wife Seonaid in Hong Kong and after three years our first son, Ieuan, was born there too.

With increasing economic uncertainty as the Handover to China approached, we decided to leave, and both of us began looking for new jobs – Seonaid was then teaching at the Chinese International School. We worked on the principle that whoever got a good job offer first would accept it, and the other would stay at home, look after our son and write a book!

As it turned out my wife was offered a job at a school in Ankara, Turkey, and a few months later we arrived in our new home. Having arrived in Hong Kong separately, this was our first move as a couple and it took us a while to settle into our new roles of ‘breadwinner’ and ‘househusband/male accompanying partner‘.
‘Of course, one might question whether it is the growth of female assignees with male spouses that has prompted this action. In the past, dual career policies have been developed with a predominantly female audience in mind. Limited financial compensation but positive support measures have made some headway in encouraging spouse mobility but, by their very nature, they could not address the heart of the problem – namely the ability to work in the host country in the first place. One wonders whether a stronger spousal (male) voice in pursuing work opportunities is driving organisational lobbying for change or whether the requirement for greater gender equality in expatriation, reflecting the need to exploit all available talent, provides a sufficient driver by itself. Either way, the employer voice is strengthening and, judging by some of the successes achieved so far, governments are listening. Whatever the driver, improved work-permit regulations will provide a kick-start, but the organisations should not feel that this is a reason to step back. Legislative interventions need to be backed by career development initiatives so that those who want to, can pursue career opportunities alike, regardless of whether they are the primary assignee of the second career holder.’
ORC Worldwide, Dual Careers and International Assignments Survey 2005

What’s so different about the new breed?

As the employee, leading expatriate women face different issues than when they are an accompanying spouse – and their accompanying partners face different issues from those that male expatriate employees have traditionally faced.

For many of these couples this scenario – the woman being the prime/sole wage earner – will be a new experience and place new pressures on their relationship as each partner learns to adapt to the new role and responsibilities. These pressures can be both professional and domestic and the stresses of professional life can impinge on domestic life, and vice versa.
One woman who had worked abroad for many years as an aid worker and ESL teacher, both before and after she got married, found that when she became the sole wage earner and had a family relying on her solitary income, it suddenly became clear to her why men work long hours to keep their job and climb the corporate ladder. This realisation, that everything the family had depended on her, caused an unexpected amount of additional stress that she had not experienced before, and which also affected the relationship with her husband. It took many months for them to become used to the new balance of responsibilities in their marriage and accept that both their roles were equally important.

From the man’s point of view, having been brought up expecting to be the breadwinner in a family, suddenly having to rely on his partner for money can be a severe blow to his ego and self-esteem – and this can cause resentment of his partner.

Unfortunately, the scenario is often new not for just the couple concerned, but also for colleagues, friends, relatives and employers – and they can’t always be relied on to be supportive in their reactions.

For example, a female expatriate employee whose husband stayed at home to look after their children faced constant criticism from her mother, who thought that it was wrong for her to work while her husband ‘lived off her’. Women employees can also find themselves commonly assumed to be the bilingual secretary in the office, rather than a career professional able to deal with clients as well as her male colleagues.

The woman can also have to listen to criticism of her partner, which can be upsetting. One woman overheard her colleagues saying about her husband, ‘What type of fool must he be to quit his job for her? What was he doing before – selling hamburgers at McDonalds?’ In this case it did not seem to matter that the husband in question was a trial attorney – nor that the wife of the man who made the comments was a medical doctor who had previously given up her own career to follow him.

The men can face problems too and when not employed they can find that other people consider them a failure, or even an unqualified waster.

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