Shelley Wheeler, who works for a multinational energy company, had been putting herself forward for an expatriate role for several years before she finally got a posting.
"I think it was difficult for people to ’hear’ my request," Wheeler says.
"Decision-makers make assumptions as to what they think the best sort of assignment for someone would be. When they move that framework over to women they tend to eliminate certain jobs because of the locations they are in and assume they are either too dangerous or difficult," she says.
Now from her base in Dubai, Wheeler focuses on doing business in Kazakhstan.
After five months in her new role, she hasn’t met any real problems due to being a woman in her early 30s in a traditionally male-dominated industry and culture.
Wheeler explains that when her company is dealing with local business contacts it is not usual that anybody goes alone. "Because I am the only woman on the team, inevitably it is a male colleague who goes with me," she says.
So how would Wheeler deal with men who found her gender to be an issue on the business floor? "I think it is always a matter of context," she says
"If I am the decision-maker in the room, and the men I am doing business with constantly address a male colleague, then, if it is necessary for the successful outcome of that meeting, I slowly make the other side aware that I am the person they need to refer to," Wheeler explains.
Intercultural trainer Dean Foster has observed that, depending upon the degree to which a culture has been involved in the process of globalisation, "foreign businesswomen are seen firstly as business people, secondly as representatives of their culture, and thirdly as women."
According to Foster, values or belief systems haven’t changed. "In the global business environment familiarity has bred, in addition to contempt, a set of behaviours that at least acknowledges differences," he says.
London-based Rosalyn Rahme (45) has worked for 20 years in executive research. She is a board member of four companies and has extensive international top level business experience.
Rahme says that she knows from first-hand experience that there are cultural barriers to doing business in the EMEA region - especially in the oil, gas and automotives industries.
"They will not do business with you in the way they would with a man," says Rahme, who is half Lebanese.
Especially in the Middle East, "boys have to be boys and girls to be girls," says Rahme. "You’ve got to play along with it. If you are able return the banter of these men, but still be respectful you will get their respect," she says, noting that women need to be "very mature" in their behaviour to carry this off.
But cultural barriers and companies’ attitudes alone don’t explain why, on average, only 12 to 16 percent of international assignees are women.
Rosalyn Rahme describes a recent HR position which she was charged to fill as requiring regular travel to Dubai and Africa. "My client pointed out that it would be very unlikely that a woman will be attracted to this role, not only because of the countries that she would be visiting, but also due to the amount of travel involved," says Rahme.
S Padmanabahn, executive vice president and global head of HR for Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. (TCS), Bangalore, India, which boasts a large internationally mobile workforce, admits that the women within TCS are not quite as mobile as men, although this is changing.