|Business Horizons, March-April
1993 v36 n2 p82(5)
American female expatriates and the Civil
Rights Act of 1991: balancing legal and business
interests. (Women in Business) Patricia Feltes;
Robert K. Robinson; Ross L. Fink.
Brief Summary: Some women at multinational
corporations are accepting jobs in foreign countries as a way
of advancing their careers, but women still are not accepted
as managers in some countries. The Civil Rights Act of 1991
protects women managers in the US.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT Foundation for the School of
Business at Indiana Univer 1993
American multinational companies are facing a growing list
of conflicting realities as they staff their international
divisions. Primary among them is that managers currently based
in the United States are reluctant to accept transfers to
foreign posts. Meanwhile, an increasing number of managers in
any organization are women, many anxious to attain greater
status in the firm and interested in accepting positions that
will offer visibility and challenge. This interest is legally
protected under the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of
At the same time, companies with operations in many parts
of the world must still deal with local mores, customs, and
laws. And those local traditions and preferences often differ
from--if they are not in total contrast to--American
practices. Reconciling these facts while meeting staffing
needs adds to the challenges faced by globally oriented
Staffing Foreign Posts
Filling foreign operation positions has long been difficult
for many American companies. Upwardly mobile managers have
feared that if they were no longer near corporate headquarters
for an extended period they would be forgotten. This has been
especially true in firms where senior management had
historically downplayed the importance of international
There may now be an impetus to reverse this attitude,
because the level of vulnerability American firms face from
global competitors is changing rapidly. In 1984, 70 percent of
firms in U.S. domestic markets faced significant foreign
competition; by 1987, the figure was estimated to be 80
percent. As more companies begin to expand their global
presence or meet the international challenge domestically,
they are finding that a more positive stance may be necessary
to encourage the best managerial candidates.
Some U.S. corporations are already beginning to imitate
European, Japanese, and Australian firms, which refuse to send
any manager on an international assignment unless that person
is identified as possessing senior management potential. At Du
Pont, for example, almost half of the company's sales are
foreign sales. This is making a stint overseas almost
essential for promotion to top management.
Women in Management
Women currently account for approximately 41 percent of the
managers in the U.S. work force; however, they account for
only 6.6 percent of corporate executives. As companies begin
to value international experience as necessary for executive
positions within a firm, it becomes more expedient for women
to participate in those assignments.
Historically, women were discouraged from applying for
foreign postings. The differing attitudes of world cultures
toward the "male" and "female" role was generally given as the
rationale. In addition, there was no legal requirement placed
on U.S. companies to consider women for such positions.
Although women still hold a very small percentage of
expatriate managerial positions, there has been a marked
increase in recent years. A study of American women sent
overseas (Taylor et al. 1975) found that a typical assignment
lasted less than 30 days. Only one woman of the 291 women
transferred overseas by 171 American multinational companies
had been assigned to an expatriate position for longer than
Nancy Adler's multi-part study (1984) of expatriate
managers showed that of the 13,338 expatriates from 686 U.S.
and Canadian firms responding, 402 (3 percent) were female.
Adler defined an expatriate as an employee who has been
assigned to a professional or managerial position in a country
outside the home base of the company for six months or longer.
By 1989, women's representation had risen to 5 percent of
American employees on overseas assignments. In a more recent
study, J. Stewart Black (1991) found that 6 percent of the 174
respondents who had spent 9 months or more on foreign
assignment were female. However, during the same time period,
only 1.3 percent of expatriates in the Asian sectors of the
Pacific rim were women (Stone 1991). These figures demonstrate
increased female participation on longer overseas assignments
but do not indicate that their distribution is equal
throughout the globe.
Civil Rights Act of 1991
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women and
legally defined minorities were granted certain workplace
protections. Title VII of the act prohibits discrimination in
employment based on gender, race, national origin, or
religion. However, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act
of 1991, Title VII protections were not relevant to American
citizens working abroad for U.S.-controlled firms. A
long-standing principle of American law is that Congressional
legislation applies only within the territorial borders of the
United States unless specifically stated otherwise. Congress
used clear language in the 1991 Act to expand coverage by
amending the definition of "employee" in Title VII to mean a
U.S. citizen employed in a foreign country by an Americanowned
or -controlled company. In short, an American now working
overseas for a U.S. company enjoys the same equal employment
opportunity protection as an American working within the
United States. Title VII, however, does not apply to foreign
operations that are not owned or controlled by an American
Limitation of Protection
The overseas extension of civil rights protections is not
universal or automatic. A company is not required to comply
with Title VII if compliance would cause the company to
violate the law of the host country. For example, if a U.S.
company has an operation in a foreign country that has
statutes prohibiting the employment of women in management
positions, Title VII would not apply. Because the company
would be expected to follow the law of the host country, it
could not be liable for sex discrimination under Title VII of
the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This is in keeping with the
well-established international law practice that countries may
subject their own nationals to rules of conduct outside
national borders as long as there is no conflict between those
rules and the laws of the relevant foreign country. However,
if the host country had no law explicitly stating such
prohibition, the U.S. company is expected to ensure the U.S.
mandated equal opportunities and protections of its U.S.
U.S. multinationals have been concerned about the effect
that the extension of equal opportunity protections will have
on their foreign operations. They are aware that there is an
increased likelihood of litigation as female expatriates seek
to protect their overseas employment rights. Note that 70
percent of the respondents in a Business Week survey of 400
female managers thought women should take legal action if they
see evidence of discrimination (Segal and Zellner 1992). The
Civil Rights Act of 1991 has increased the geographic reach of
both the protections and the remedies of women and ethnic and
A big problem for employers, and indirectly for female
expatriates, arises when local custom creates gender barriers
that are not overtly stated as national law. In such
instances, Title VII would prevail and a female expatriate
would be given access to the position even though such an
assignment was contrary to host country social mores. The
result could be the diminution of company/host country
relations. This would be particularly likely if exporting U.S.
equal employment philosophies is viewed as a form of "cultural
imperialism" by the local community.
There could also be undesirable consequences for female
expatriates themselves. For example, if a host country's
culture makes sharp distinctions between what men are expected
to do and what women are expected to do, U.S. female
expatriates may encounter resistance if they are performing
traditionally male roles. Failure to accept, or resentment of,
the female expatriate's authority could hamper her ability to
accomplish her assigned overseas mission. The question then
becomes: How does a U.S. multinational obey U.S. law, meet its
international staffing needs, and maintain good relations with
its foreign host governments?
Plan of Action
In the spirit that preparation is better than litigation,
we suggest a plan of action to aid employers. Guidelines that
are well conceived, communicated clearly, and enforced
throughout the organization offer the best prevention against
lawsuits. The following action plan is designed to eliminate
potential problems before they become cause for litigation.
* A corporation should sponsor reality training for
managers who are or will be stationed abroad. Suitable subject
matter should include the culture, values, and traditions of
the host country and its people and how these facts may affect
the manager. This information would be valuable for any
potential expatriate, but particularly so to women and other
groups who might be faced with special situations. For
example, conduct that would be considered sexist here may not
have the same connotation in the host culture. Corporate
management, however, must be careful that the training is not
used (or perceived to be used) to discourage women and
minorities from international assignments. The sessions should
include tactics to address potential difficulties, not merely
an unbroken list of problems. An emphasis on realistic
solutions or approaches is especially critical when the
foreign environment is expected to be culturally hostile.
* There should be clear and consistent rules for use at the
work site. Ongoing training for supervisors and managers
already at the foreign location should be held regularly. The
meaning and implementation effects of Title VII should be made
familiar to all, including locals who hold supervisory
positions. When possible, Title VII can be made explicit
company policy at the site. Results of the training should be
monitored so that appropriate feedback can be given. Every
effort should be made to make the foreign assignment a success
for all concerned.
* Use local consultants to identify potential problems. No
one will understand the traditions and habits of the local
populace as well as one of the locals themselves. Consulting
with a responsible consultant who is cognizant of the cultural
artifacts and the needs of business will help an organization
act rather than react to any difficulties.
* Consultants should clarify the legal status of local
standard practices. If provisions regarding hiring and
promoting are explicitly stated in the host country's laws,
the company is not obligated under the Civil Rights Act to
extend Title VII provisions to its employees in those matters.
In fact, the company may be in jeopardy from the host country
authorities if it imposes U.S. standards.
* If at all possible, avoid "token" situations. Fill
multiple positions with women or minorities. A single
appointment is often construed as a company's response to a
perceived legal requirement, rather than as a commitment to
promote the best regardless of gender or race. Additionally,
filling multiple positions offers some protection against the
necessity of maintaining a questionable employee from fear of
lawsuit. The fact that others of the employee's gender or race
are successfully remaining at the work site can offer some
defense for the corporate action.
* Some foreign sites can be identified in advance as
culturally hostile environments for certain groups of American
citizens. These societies impose severe restrictions--not
necessarily written into law-on certain groups of people based
on gender, religion, race, or national origin. A U.S. company
can only protect its employees' rights within its
jurisdiction. In a practical sense, that jurisdiction ends at
the company "gate."
* Hiring locals for all management positions represents one
method that would virtually eliminate the risk of assigning
women and other minorities who may be doomed to failure by the
severity of cultural circumstance. In the most culturally
hostile environments, reliance on native-born managers may be
the best answer. However, this must not be a halfhearted
measure. The potential for charges of discrimination remains
if the corporation fills lower-level positions with locals
while the highest management positions are still reserved for
the company's home office personnel. Remember that women
constitute a growing number of such "home office personnel";
as such, they would therefore expect to be considered for the
Every day U.S. multinationals face increasing constraints
in the development of their foreign operations. Many of their
domestic-based managers are reluctant to accept international
posts because of perceived disruptions in their personal and
At the same time, women managers are beginning to recognize
the dearth of promotion opportunities within their companies
and to see foreign posting as potentially beneficial. Their
position for such advancement has been strengthened by the
passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which extends the
Title VII rights of U.S. employees to work sites outside the
boundaries of the country. These sites may be located in the
midst of societies with strong cultural values that happen to
conflict with U.S. standards.
Employers are, therefore, realistically concerned with
their ability to balance the various constraints placed upon
them. The guidelines we have proposed in this article should
help provide those employers with a plan for action.
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Patricia Feltes is an assistant professor of management at
Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield, Robert K.
Robinson is an assistant professor of management at the
University of Mississippi, Oxford. Ross L. Flnk is an
assistant professor of management at Bradley University,