It’s been a tumultuous year for everyone. Covid-19 has forced us all out of our old routines. We’ve had to change habits and adapt to strange new ways of living and working. For my wife and me, those changes now include adjustment to life in Hong Kong, a new and unfamiliar place for both us.
The reason for our move abroad: my wife’s job.
Back in New York, I’d worked as an independent HR consultant and recruiter, advising startups and multinational companies in the tech and finance industries. My wife was on the corporate HR side, focusing on people analytics. We were happy and supportive of each other’s careers, both in our late twenties and both working in people operations, albeit from different angles.
The journey towards our eventual relocation began over dinner one night a couple of years back. It started with a casual comment from my wife. “One of my career goals is to work abroad.”
“Sounds good,” I said. “Let me know when.”
It was a small but important conversation. Although she didn’t have a specific position on the horizon at the time, my wife was happy with the knowledge that I’d support her career down the road, and I was excited by her ambition. We moved on to other topics that night, content to dream about the future without the restrictions of practical considerations and responsibilities.
But when the role eventually materialized and my wife moved into serious conversations with her company, the realities of an international move took greater form, and the seriousness of the transition began to dawn on both of us. This would be a big deal.
We had an incredible life back home in NYC, and we had no prior connections in Hong Kong. Taking this assignment would mean leaving behind our friends and family. It would also mean me leaving behind the consulting practice I’d built — plunging into an unfamiliar job market at a time of crisis when many companies are not hiring. Challenging? Yes. But worth it.
The opportunity for my wife to take on a global assignment is not only a huge boost for her personal career, it’s also a chance to make a statement. Women are dramatically underrepresented as global expats, although the numbers are growing. According to a 2019 study in the International Journal of HR Management, women now make up about around 25 percent of expat assignees.
The majority of expats are accompanied by a spouse or partner — but there’s risk involved. The number one reason why expat assignments fail is due to family-related issues, including failure of the partner to find work, an issue which impacts around 50 percent of expatriate partners. Even if I was personally eager to accompany my wife in our situation, I can understand the reluctance some men might feel.
I’ve become what those in the expat community refer to as a “trailing spouse,” a term (a demeaning one, in my view) which has historically applied primarily to women who accompanied their husbands on corporate assignments. It’s also phrase that doesn’t exactly conform to traditional Western or Eastern conceptions of masculinity. From a social and networking perspective, it’s a little bit nervy. When my wife and I meet people, many initially assume that we’re here for my job, not hers. Once they learn it’s her expat assignment, the next question I typically receive is if I’ve been able to transfer my prior work overseas. There is an outright, enduring assumption that it’s the man who works. No surprises there. Despite these challenges, it’s been a smooth transition so far. Making friends in Hong Kong has been easy. Most people are happy to network. Though I haven’t found a job yet, I’m confident I will.
Most companies, including my wife’s, are aware of the obstacles for expat partners and even have support functions in place to help. In my case, that support takes the form of my Hong Kong career coach, the awesome Nerice Gietel (check out her blog here). We meet weekly to discuss my career goals and job hunting strategy. During our last coaching session, I brought up the possibility of writing this article to detail my experience.
“An amazing idea,” she said. “Not many men are willing to speak out about it.” That’s a shame. It’s 2020. I’m a male trailing spouse, my wife is a kick-ass business woman. Here’s an article about it.
If you’re hiring — be in touch! In the meantime, I wanted to share my story to give confidence to other couples who might be considering a major life or career change, regardless of which partner takes the lead. More women should have the opportunity to take on global assignments.
And more men should be excited to follow.
Originally posted on Medium.com
A note from Max's coach Nerice:
"I could not contain my excitement when my REA - Partners in Transition career coaching client Max Buckler mentioned the idea of writing about his experience of changing his career path to accompany his spouse to Hong Kong. Over the years, a large proportion of my coaching clients have been highly educated women who ended up on a #careerbreak because they followed their spouses on international assignment(s). For many, the gap in employment grew because they prioritised the needs of their family above pursuing their own promising careers, or because they struggled to navigate the new job market without adequate support. These women are the unrecognised #femaleallies that enable their spouses to remain on their successful #careerpaths. Max’s story clearly shows that whilst #internationalassignments remain integral to men and women being able to climb career ladders, they need allies both in the workplace and at home to be able to do this.