Working in Japan: Lessons from Women Expatriates

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In today’s world, business is international. As the global operations of U.S. firms acquire increasing strategic importance, so do the personnel that manage those operations, particularly expatriate managers. Since a growing number of the expatriate managers are women, U.S. firms urgently need to understand the issues surrounding the placement of women in overseas operations.

There are several reasons for the increasing number of women expatriates. First, women are reaching higher levels of management generally, and, because of the need for international experience among top managers, there is pressure to send them abroad.1 In addition, changes in the Equal Employment Opportunity laws in 1991 explicitly state that nondiscrimination in hiring has extraterritorial application.2 Finally, although certainly not least, is the increasing number of dual-career couples in the United States; many male candidates (and their spouses) now find overseas assignments less attractive.

To better understand the experiences of women expatriates, we researched the adjustment of foreign women professionals to living and working in Japan. We chose Japan as the site for our research because it is often seen as a difficult environment for foreign working women, particularly those in business or in professions such as law and engineering. Proponents of this view point out the current dearth of Japanese women managers, ten years after passage of their equal employment law.3 Also, Japan is enormously important in the world economy and to the bottom lines of many U.S. firms, making the performance of foreign personnel there critical. Finally, our initial research uncovered a significant number of foreign women professionals working in Japan. We felt that we could learn much from these women’s experiences that can be valuable to firms considering hiring foreign women for operations in Japan and other countries.

In 1992 and 1993, we surveyed the members of Foreign Executive Women, an organization based in Tokyo. In addition, we surveyed the foreign female members of the American Chamber of Commerce of Japan. The surveys yielded a 32 percent response rate, providing a total of ninety-one responses (see Figure 1 for a breakdown of the job functions of the women surveyed). In addition, we spent a week in Tokyo interviewing eighteen foreign women professionals in various fields (e.g., business, law, consulting) and organization levels (e.g., vice president, accountant, marketing director).



1. F. Schwartz, Breaking With Tradition: Women and Work, the New Facts of Life (New York: Warner Books, 1992).

2. S. Taylor and R. Eder, “U.S. Expatriates and the Civil Rights Act of 1991: Dissolving Boundaries,” in S.B. Prasad, ed., Advances in International Comparative Management (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1994), pp. 171–192; and

P. Feltes, R. Robinson, and R. Fink, “American Female Expatriates and the Civil Rights Act of 1991: Balancing Legal and Business Interests,” Business Horizons, volume 36, March–April 1993, pp. 82–86.

3. A. Lam, Women and Japanese Management (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

4. For a fuller description of the study and methodology, see:

N. Napier and S. Taylor, Western Women Working in Japan: Breaking Corporate Barriers (Westport, Connecticut: Quorum Press, 1995); or

S. Taylor and N. Napier, “Successful Women Expatriates: The Case of Japan,” Journal of International Management, forthcoming.

5. B. Parker, “Employment Globalization: Can Voluntary Expatriates Meet U.S. Hiring Needs Abroad?,” Journal of Global Business, volume 2, Fall 1991, pp. 39–46.

6. S. Black, M. Mendenhall, and G. Oddou, Global Assignments (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992); and

S. Black and H. Gregersen, “Antecedents to Cross-Cultural Adjustment for Expatriates in the Pacific Rim,” Human Relations, volume 44, number 5, 1991, pp. 497–515.

7. Black et al. (1992); and

J. Lublin and C. Smith, “Management: U.S. Companies Struggle with Scarcity of Executives to Run Outposts in China,” Wall Street Journal, 23 August 1994, p. B1.

8. S. Black, “Work Role Transitions: A Study of American Expatriate Managers in Japan,” Journal of International Business Studies, volume 19, number 2, 1988, pp. 497–515.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.;

Black et al. (1992); and

R. Tung, The New Expatriates: Managing Human Resources Abroad (New York: Ballinger, 1988).

11. N. Adler, “Pacific Basin Managers: A Gaijin, Not a Woman,” Human Resource Management, volume 26, number 2, 1987, pp. 169–192.

12. S. Black and M. Mendenhall, “Cross-Cultural Training Effectiveness: A Review and Theoretical Framework for Future Research,” Academy of Management Review, volume 15, number 1, 1990, pp. 113–136.

13. R. Peterson, J. Sargent, N. Napier, and W. Shim, “The World’s Largest Multinational Companies: Practices for Expatriates” (Maui, Hawaii: paper presented at the Academy of International Business meeting, October 1993).

14. G. Oddou, “Managing Your Expatriates: What the Successful Firms Do,” Human Resources Planning, volume 14, number 4, 1991, pp. 301–308; and

M. Birdseye and J. Hill, “Individual, Organization/Work and Environmental Influences on Expatriate Turnover Tendencies: An Empirical Study,” Journal of International Business Studies, volume 26, number 4, 1995, pp. 487–814.

15. S. Black, “A Tale of Three Countries” (Miami, Florida: paper presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting, August 1991).

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