Lesbian and Gay Expatriation: Is there a Glass Border?

Fundamental global shifts, including growth in emerging markets and changing employee attitudes, have seen global employee mobility increasing.  However, a ‘glass border’ is restricting some LGBT employees from enjoying prosperous international careers, with many countries being unsafe or unfriendly for LGBT people, and limited organisational support creating barriers to working overseas. 

In 2002, only 13 US organisations had ‘corporate equality index’ ratings of 100% for their LGBT policies and practices. Seven years later, this number leapt to 259.  Despite this positive development, homosexuality remains punishable by death in 13 countries and illegal in a further 74, making some locations undesirable, and potentially unsafe, for LGBT expatriates. So, how can organisations better support LGBT employees to take advantage of international opportunities?

Until recently, academic research relating to global mobility has focused on the heterosexual experience, remaining mostly silent on the experience of members from the LGBT community. In a pioneering collaborative study Professors Ruth McPhail and Kate Hutchings (Griffith University, Australia), worked with Dr Yvonne McNulty (Singapore University of Social Sciences) to conduct and analyse interviews with 20 lesbian and gay (LG) expatriates.

Recognising a small sample size, the research found that an expatriate’s LG identity can act as both a disabler and enabler to global mobility. Importantly, the study also provides strategies for organisations to support LG expatriation, including reinforcing LG networks and groups, and applying the same policies to supporting relocation of homosexual couples and families as their heterosexual counterparts.

Aim

The research aimed to address an important gap in the expatriation literature and to explore the different forms of social capital possessed by LG employees. The research defined social capital as the ‘actual and potential resources embedded within, available through, and derived from, the network of relationships possessed by an individual or social unit’ (Nahapiet and Ghoshal, 1998).

More specifically, the research sought to answer the question: What are the opportunities, barriers and challenges for global mobility for LG expatriates?

Method

The researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with 20 expatriates who identified as either lesbian or gay, who were working within a range of industries including media, financial services and government. The interviewees shared experiences in over 20 different host countries.

The hypotheses tested focused on exploring three different forms of social capital: structural, relational and cognitive, and were as follows:

1a) LG expatriates will use their ‘structural social capital’ (i.e. personal, professional and LG networks) to locate and facilitate expatriation

1b) LG expatriates will use their ‘structural social capital’ to establish and maintain connections before, during and after assignment(s)

2) LG expatriates will use their ‘relational social capital’ (including their ability to trust, and identify with groups and networks) to determine the perceived levels of LG acceptance and equality both societally and organisationally prior to and during expatriation

3a) LG expatriates will use their ‘cognitive social capital’ (i.e. the shared language, codes and narratives with LG groups) to determine a sense of belonging, both societally and organisationally, before, during and after expatriation

3b) LG expatriates will use their ‘cognitive social capital’ to ascertain levels of acceptance, equality and access to support before, during and after assignments

Findings

The research found that LG expatriates possess a form of social capital that is not shared with heterosexual expatriates which provides a number of unique opportunities, challenges and barriers.

The key findings of the research were:

  1. LG expatriates have access to unique and often exclusive networks that provide extensive amounts of information and can be transferred across cultures and borders.

This study revealed the unique and comprehensive networks that many members of the LG expatriate community have developed globally (in contrast to previous findings). Most interviewees stated that LG networks and resources were readily available to them in expatriation, and played an important role in providing support.

The research suggests that these networks provide an advantage for LG expatriates over their heterosexual counterparts. Reflecting upon her experience of moving to Australia, one respondent explained: “I think it was easier, because if I had found myself here not gay then it would have been more difficult… our community is smaller and they come together to make groups for lots of things.”

  1. LG expatriates face challenges as a result of stereotyping and inequality of company support for themselves and their families, compared to their heterosexual counterparts.

Experiences with company support varied amongst participants, and many felt as though organisation’s policies did not afford them equal treatment in comparison to their heterosexual counterparts. While some interviewees reported having the same policy for all partnered employees, regardless of sexual orientation, other organisations provided substantially less, or no support, to LG expatriates and their families.  The research found that where no support is provided in terms of healthcare, allowances and relocation assistance, expatriates will often look for another employer

  1. Social climate, described as the ‘comfort factor’, was found to be most important to an LG expatriate when choosing a destination.

A country’s cultural climate was consistently stated to be more important than the relevant legal framework. One respondent described the culture as the ‘comfort factor’: “Even if you are legally protected, are you okay if the people around you are a little squeamish about gay people or lesbians or transgender? Because that’s the “comfort factor.”

While legal, safety and security factors can be ascertained through publically available information, the ‘comfort factor’ will usually be determined through the gathering of information from LG networks and from organisational resources, where provided.

Implications

This research extends the limited literature on LG global mobility by exploring the opportunities, barriers and challenges for LG expatriates. However, there were limitations in the research, including a small sample size and all interviewees self-identifying as LG. Therefore, the views of the participants may not reflect the experience of those who are not comfortable in identifying as LG as they are not supported by their organisation as being ‘out’.

Nevertheless, the research acts as a catalyst for future research in the area, and offers a number of tangible strategies for organisations to improve the experience of LG expatriates.

There are a number of ways an organisation can prevent stereotyping and discrimination. Alongside reviewing their non-discrimination policy and providing diversity awareness training for colleagues, a key component is applying the same relocation policy to homosexual partners and families as is heterosexual partners and families. Furthermore, given the heightened vulnerability of LG expatriates, the research stresses the need for organisations to establish and reinforce LG networks and support groups.

Managers need to reconsider any assumptions made about the suitability or willingness of LG individuals to relocate, and to ensure that they fully utilise the diversity of the global talent pool available to them. Similarly, LG individuals should consider leveraging their unique social capital to pursue a career path that shatters ‘glass borders’.

For more information, contact Jessie Goldie (jgoldie@deloitte.com.au)

To read the full article, see Ruth McPhail, Yvonne McNulty and Kate Hutchings (2016) Lesbian and gay expatriation: opportunities, barriers and challenges for global mobility, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, vol. 23 No. 3, pp. 382-406


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