Breaking Through Glass Borders

03/06/2013 11:54 | Updated 31 July 2013
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We all know about that infamous glass ceiling. But women are also held back behind glass borders too. Eight out of ten people posted overseas are men as organisations tend to discount women as strong candidates for those international assignments that are becoming increasingly important to climbing the career ladder. A new book just out, 'Worldly Women: The New Leadership Profile' by Sapna Welsh and Caroline Kersten explains that men are, the research shows, promoted on their potential - and actively pursue opportunities overseas, while women are promoted on their performance - and are much less likely to put their name forward for promotion abroad.

Demand is rising for truly global leaders who understand how to lead teams coming from many and varied cultural backgrounds. Authors Kersten and Welsh argue that companies face skills shortages: they need leaders with a global track record who understand how to lead multi-cultural teams. So this is the moment for women to shatter the glass border.

It's a tough gig. I know as I have been there and was on of the points made by my nominee who put me forward for the First Women Awards which will be announced next month. It isn't easy to keep going with the normal demands of home and work, while at the same time closing things down in one country and then opening them all up again in another - from tax authorities to doctors, renting a house, schools, language classes......And forget about new friends. It puts on steroids all the usual challenges of being a working mother: every time you start a meeting, your phone rings with an urgent home problem, and every time you settle down to a game with your kids, work is on the line with an urgent problem. You constantly feel guilty about both worlds - you need your new office to accept you, and your kids settle in. Like so many women, I seem to have won the right to feel permanently exhausted and endlessly guilty.

And yet and yet ...... every tedious, stressful moment is more than outweighed by the sheer exhilaration of experiences that shape you forever. When I was a child, we lived in India as, in the heyday of 1960s, my father was sent to establish a Formica factory - whose laminated tops still decorate many an Indian tea shop! That experience was a defining feature of my upbringing and meant that as soon as I left school, I went to work in India and it is why today I work at Fairtrade International as my small contribution to ending global injustices and poverty. Every time I step off a plane and smell the warm, humid air of an airport in India or Kenya, I am still swept with excitement and the power of a thousand associations. And equally, each experience of living and working abroad builds a woman's skills to work with, understand and manage people from around the world.

Caroline and Sapna encourage women actively to consider an overseas post as a conscious move to build their future leadership. As I have bumbled along in life, I could have done with this advice. It's a secret that I only dare tell now: when younger (before I discovered feminism obviously!), I considered finding a rich Scottish sheep farmer with a castle who parties: the optimistically named 'gin and tonic option'. But no tartan laird striding into my life, I went for the opposite - the 'brown rice' option, following a sense that I wanted to contribute to social justice.

Research is piling up from Credit Suisse to McKinsey showing that companies with a higher share of women in top executive positions are economically more successful and achieve higher profits. How hard can be it for men to see that they need to go that extra mile to enable women to move overseas as well as up in their company?

'Worldly Women; by Welsh and Kersten, can be purchased at Amazon.com and LeverageHR.com

Harriet Lamb, Chief Executive of Fairtrade International, is shortlisted for the 2013 First Women Awards