The 1970’s were a period of huge change and liberalization which saw the world shift in its attitude to women. However, when it comes to choosing someone for an international assignment, it seems that we are stuck in a 50-year-old time warp. Female talent continues to be overlooked when it comes to sending the best person on an international assignment.

In 1976, Mckinsey Quarterly published an article, entitled, “Sex Bias: Still in Business”. The author stated that “companies taking an honest look at how they handled the advancement of women were likely to uncover some “thorny attitude-based problems…[that]…will take much longer and prove much more difficult to solve…[than]…sex-based differences in benefits plans and obviously biased employment literature”.

In 2014, Mckinsey published results from a survey of 1400 executives around the world on the same topic. Depressingly, the results showed that little had changed and female talent was lagging behind male. 

Women: Underrepresented at Home and Abroad

Global Mobility teams “taking an honest look” at themselves may find a similar challenge. Women still represent only 25% of all international assignees. In the general workforce, the ratio of women to men is around 0.7 (source: UNDP), but the lack of women appointed to international roles reflects a similar significant gender imbalance at senior management level.

Without international experience, women are not considered for senior roles; without the senior roles, they are unable to challenge the attitudes and culture that create a barrier to female progression.

Forbes article notes that: “Globally, the proportion of senior business roles held by women stands at 24%…” In a slightly less reverent survey in the New York Times, the authors pointed out that there were more CEOs in the USA called John than there were female CEOs.

This similarity of percentages is not a coincidence. International businesses say that they expect senior managers to have international experience, but these same organizations appoint men to 75% of their internationally mobile roles. Without the international experience, women are not considered for senior roles; without the senior roles, they are unable to challenge the attitudes and culture that create a barrier to female progression.

Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity

The Role Global Mobility Can Play in Delivering a Diverse Workforce

Uncovering the Myths

There are (at least) three hidden attitudinal or cultural barriers that filter women out of consideration for international assignments:

  • Women don’t want to go on assignment 
  • Women are less likely to settle on assignment 
  • There are some countries where women just can’t work 

These three barriers are based on myths derived from the unconscious bias that makes assumptions about a woman’s intentions without actually asking her. These three myths are easily refuted: 

Organizations still have an institutionally patriarchal culture towards women: 

“The … most annoying are those that make ‘well-intentioned’ decisions about you. For example, ‘We didn’t ask you on that trip to Germany because we thought you wouldn’t want to leave the kids.” Emma, IT Manager.

So how can we challenge the gender imbalance in global mobility? 

Follow the Data 

“The … most annoying are those that make ‘well-intentioned’ decisions about you. For example, ‘We didn’t ask you on that trip to Germany because we thought you wouldn’t want to leave the kids.” Emma, IT Manager.

Firstly, we need to start tracking the data. According to PwC, two in every three international companies do not even track diversity statistics for global mobility. This means that there is no visibility to demonstrate the seriousness of the situation. The statistics we do have are from interviews and surveys conducted among assignees themselves, so in fact, the situation could be significantly worse.

Recording the data would go a long way to breaking down the “old boys’ club” of assignments, which involves a senior manager approaching “someone suitable” and then informing the global mobility team of the decision, rather than going through the usual recruitment channels. This undermines the value that global mobility professionals can bring.

The Rise of Female Assignees: About Time!

Global Mobility as a Strategic Resource

These professionals have the experience and tools to play an active and strategic role in choosing the right candidate for assignment. Global mobility professionals know the intercultural and soft skills that underpin assignment success. They are more aware of the non-work issues, such as family situation and health issues, that managers must consider when deciding the final package. This will bring transparency to the appointment process and even increase the equality of opportunity.

Senior HR leaders have long argued that simplifying assignee packages and removing exceptions are crucial to controlling the cost of an assignment. Each exception or variation adds additional legal and advisory costs and increases the risk of non-compliance.

Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity

The Role Global Mobility Can Play in Delivering a Diverse Workforce

Frequently, successful women are subject to disproportionate criticism and are considered cold or overly ambitious.

Additionally, standard policy packages are another tool for ensuring that the gender gap is narrowed. Anecdotally, women report that they negotiate less hard when offered an assignment. They often feel that organizations are looking for reasons not to offer them the post. Many female assignees report that they discover, after the start of an assignment, that male peers have better base salaries, increased benefits and more support for accompanying family members.

The C-suite must empower senior global mobility professionals to say “no” to those who do not follow the guidelines and policies for recruiting and appointing international assignees. This will not only help avoid the nepotism that can arise from male employees appointing their own successors in their own mold, but will also help to promote equity in compensation.

Positive Role Models

A significant factor in holding back the number of women applying for and accepting international assignments is the lack of credible female role models. This is a societal barrier. Frequently, successful women are subject to disproportionate criticism and are considered cold or overly ambitious. Although it is a small number, 25% of assignees and 24% of senior managers are female. Organizations must commit to communicating the success of women in international roles.

Role models not only inspire, they challenge the active bias that says that women are not as capable, not as talented, not as important as their male colleagues. They demonstrate that they are “normal” people, doing “normal” jobs very well. They have the same personality strengths and weaknesses. By trumpeting female assignees who have succeeded abroad, a company demonstrates the value it assigns to women, and advertises its commitment to developing the best talent, regardless of gender.