No Boundaries: Indian Women Working Abroad

Posted: July 20, 2011

How do Indian women working abroad manage the challenges life throws them? Learn from working women in India who’ve made the move!

By Aparna Vedapuri Singh

Traditionally, most Indian women moving abroad did so as trailing spouses, following the husband. The major challenges in settling abroad were usually to do with raising children and running the household in a new country. With more working women in India going out of the country either alone or with family, developing better management skills in a new workplace culture and focusing on one’s own career growth in a different environment has also become imperative.

Here are some learnings shared by Indian women who’ve gone out to work in different parts of the globe.

Work Life Balance Matters

If your new assignment is in the U.S or Europe, it’s important to understand that these places have a different attitude to work and its place in your life. Anne John, a Software Engineer in an earlier phase of her career, talks about her time spent on projects in the U.K and the U.S, and mentions this as a key difference. She says, “In India, at least in IT, people are more casual at work. We take coffee/tea/lunch breaks, stand around and gossip and don’t necessarily look at the clock while working; people generally leave late – in fact if anyone leaves early, they stand out. But in the U.K/U.S everyone works from 9 to 5. Most people even have their lunch at their desk and hardly take any breaks.”

Her team was briefed about this difference and asked to avoid taking too many casual breaks. And while colleagues at some places may be friendly and hang out after work, it is not a given. Contrast this with a country such as Japan, where meeting with colleagues after work is practically expected! In such places, if you prefer not to socialize with colleagues, it may actually be perceived as not being a team player.

Language issues for Indians working abroad

Indians who travel to English-speaking countries usually do not have a major problem, at least with basic communication. Elsewhere, not knowing the language can be a major handicap. Even if the official language for work related communication is English, colleagues may frequently switch to other languages, and you end up missing out on the friendly banter or undercurrents that are so important at any office. Without language proficiency, your life outside the office also becomes very restricted.

Lakshmiprabha Sundaram*, Director with a Marketing Services firm based in Indonesia says, “Though at work it is cool, because people talk in English even if not grammatically correct, everywhere else it is Indonesian. The first thing I did even before I found a house was to find an Indonesian language tutor.”

Even in English-speaking countries, some of us find the spoken language, especially accents, challenging. Anne says about some of her colleagues on-site, “There were a lot of people who were technically very strong but lost out not only on language but also on people skills. Many people simply got tense about talking to clients. I have seen people who couldn’t make themselves reply something even to a ‘Pleased to meet you’ – not because they were dumb but just because they got nervous and worked up.”

There is no quick-fix solution to this and immersion in the local culture often helps to make it less daunting. However, sticking closely only to an Indian circle of friends and never attempting to meet other people means that some Indians find it difficult. For women from a sheltered environment, where interacting with men is discouraged, this can be even harder. Try and identify places that will let you meet people with similiar interests – this could be a local business forum or even a hobby-based group. Find an Indian friend to go along if the thought of going alone scares you.

Even in English-speaking countries, some of us find the spoken language, especially accents, challenging.

Sharing housework equally

In the Indian context, the housework is rarely shared equally by spouses. Most working women get around this by outsourcing the housework to a domestic helper, and this is made possible by the cheap labour in India. On relocating to other countries, Indian women find managing housework and the workplace a tremendous burden.

Rajita Chaddha*, Marketing Manager with an IT Products firm, now based in Singapore says, “Cliched as it may sound, I now realise how spoilt we are in India – with affordable maids and cooks at our beck and call! While Singapore does offer options like temporary help from agencies and full time maids, they are expensive. I guess it’s a matter of time till one gets used to it, but it definitely calls for better time management initially.”

For those with families, the only solution to this problem is to discuss it with your spouse beforehand, and work towards a more equitable division of housework.

Going abroad to work is a big move for Indian women, both personally and professionally. Networking with other working women who’ve gone ahead of you to get an idea of what to expect, polishing up your language skills , prepping your people skills and gearing up for a cross-cultural experience, will indeed go a long way in helping you scale the corporate ladder successfully.

*Names changed on request

Founder, Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas and conversations

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Comments

2 Comments


  1. Oh I totally agree, having worked in Germany and UK I can relate to all points from importance of knowledge of local language to working 9-5 sharp! I respect that 9-5 attitude as family and house chores are to be handled individually there instead of getting them delegated to domestic helps or extended families. So I feel although many women choose to work there but they can still take care of several expectations of parenting as they get to go home just after 5! In India I feel kids are mostly growing away from their working parents due to work-life imbalance and that causes mostly their mothers to leave work totally.I agree in India we take too many breaks while at work, tea, coffee, mobiles, chats – many distractions keep hovering over us!

  2. Agree with all the points you’ve made here. The funny thing about Indians, especially upon moving to England, is that we don’t have a language problem per se. We speak English and do not foresee any difficulties. But English is a tricky beast and in England, trickier still. I have heard Indian friends tell me in a bewildered manner: “My colleague brought her child in to work today; such a thuru-thuru girl she was. I pinched her cheek and said “she is soo naughty ya” and my colleague got offended! What did I say wrongly ya?”
    Well, calling someone naughty in England is VERY different to calling someone naughty in India!

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