A woman’s world: The challenges of women working overseas

Two happy smiling women working outside on bench, working overseas

By Sarah Dennis, head of international at Towergate Health & Protection

Being given an overseas assignment is an exciting challenge but one that can also bring with it a few concerns and possibly quite a few hurdles to overcome. When it is a woman going overseas, like it or not, the challenges tend to be greater still.

The cultural differences between the UK and other countries are often different and can be more significant for women than they are for men. This may not be such a marked distinction when visiting somewhere for a holiday, but working abroad can be a very different matter.

I have first-hand experience of the different ways women are treated in other countries. It’s not necessarily a negative thing, it’s often just different. And working abroad can be a hugely positive experience if women are given the right support from their employers.

From personal experience

I have been at Towergate Health & Protection for nearly ten years and am responsible for global employee benefits, sourcing solutions for globally mobile and expatriate employees. My work has taken me all over the world. Having customers in over 92 countries, it is not a conventional nine-to-five job, but this is something I have learned to manage and even enjoy.

While a lot of the insurance industry has traditionally been a ‘man’s world’, the healthcare protection market is unusual. Around 65% of the industry is made up of women. Looking at my own team, it is also female-dominated, although it was not a conscious decision to employ mostly women, and our male colleagues are highly valued. My criteria have always been to find people with common sense, an appetite for career progression and the ability to take on a very niche market.

Different worlds

Towergate Health & Protection is based in the UK, where we are so lucky to have a good awareness of and a strong focus on women’s health. Of course, in the UK we also have the NHS, which provides a whole host of services for women, including smear tests, breast cancer screening, menopause support, and so much more. But this is not the case in other countries around the world. Many of our customers are working in countries where there is no gender equality and where women’s healthcare is largely inadequate. Indeed, in many countries female-specific health issues, like the menopause, are taboo subjects and are not even discussed, never mind treated. In these situations, it is our responsibility to address matters and, to some extent, to redress the balance. We are able to speak to providers and tap into the expertise of local brokers to understand exactly what the situation is in each country and whether we need to put a subject on the radar. Having a predominantly female team can help, as we are able to empathise and relate to our customers’ specific needs.

High cost

Women’s healthcare abroad can be very expensive. Giving birth is a good example. While the majority of women in the UK receive NHS care to have their babies, they have to pay for this privilege in a great many other countries. The USA is known for having high costs for healthcare but Singapore has now overtaken America in the costs for giving birth. In areas where there are no free healthcare systems in place, women without a comprehensive healthcare policy can find themselves left with an astronomical bill for giving birth.

Wider issues

It is not just healthcare that is an issue for women working abroad. Safety can be a concern for women in many countries. There is also the impact of cultural differences on mental health, women can be more socially isolated abroad than men. We often have to build bespoke packages for women working overseas, to ensure that they are covered for not just for physical issues but also mental, social, and financial health and wellbeing. While these four pillars of health and wellbeing are the same for employees in the UK, employers with overseas staff may need to approach them in a different way or in more depth, which is where we can guide them.

Go knowingly

Working abroad can provide very exciting opportunities for both men and women alike. My own experiences have been very positive and we have much to learn from different cultures. Employers just need to be aware of the challenges and to make sure that those they are sending abroad are aware too. This extends not just to the employee, but also to their family. The majority of overseas assignments that fail actually do so because of the experiences of the employee’s dependants, rather than those of the employee.

So the message is to go for it. Build your business, branch out, send employees overseas. Just do so with awareness and guidance. Where possible, seek local knowledge, and offer the best levels of health and wellbeing support possible.

About the author

Sarah DennisSarah Dennis is Head of International at Towergate Health & Protection. She joined the company in 2014 with over 17 years senior management industry experience for both intermediaries and global insurers.

Sarah has a formidable reputation across the industry sector and is very proud to have been recognised for several industry awards for her work. She is a regular speaker, committee member for some of the largest international providers and contributor to global industry conferences and media.

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