Across all areas of business, we read about gender equality, diversity, and inclusion on our newsfeeds. But are these just the latest buzzwords we hope will make our organizations sound dynamic and forward-thinking? Or does “gender equality” extend to all operations of a company? When it comes to Global Mobility, the widespread underrepresentation of women in international postings is discouraging to say the least.
According to the 2017 Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices, just 14% of the global expatriate workforce is made up of women. Of course, the percentage varies from continent to continent – figures range from approx. 10% in ASIAPAC to up to circa 20% in the US.
Does this mean that female talent continues to be overlooked when it comes to selecting the best employee for an international assignment? Or can we can conclude from these statistics that women are genuinely not as interested in the global opportunity as their male counterparts? Are they more averse to the risks involved?
Let’s take a closer look at these potential explanations.
Gender imbalance in global organizations
The low proportion of women on international assignments is shocking, but what’s even more sobering is that it’s far from the only area of business where women remain gravely underrepresented.
There are many organizational and cultural barriers to be challenged before more women can achieve their full potential in terms of advancement, engagement and development. This is true throughout the hierarchy but especially true at senior levels where decisions about international assignments would be made.
Women who embark on international assignments are actually more likely to remain abroad whereas men more typically return home at the end of the stipulated period.
According to Global Mobility Professional Helen Cole, these decision makers may hold unconscious prejudices, fearing that women are more likely to be lonely or face workplace challenges in other work locations affecting the ultimate success of the assignment.
Such views, however, are easily debunked with research. In fact, women who embark on international postings are actually more likely to remain abroad whereas men more typically return home at the end of the stipulated period.
The ultimate challenge here is to create an inclusive culture where all your employees acknowledge the value of diversity, and achieving this goal means starting at the top.
Family ties are often the main barriers to mobility for expatriates and this is even more the case for women. Family does not just mean children. Women often think about the impact of relocating on their partner and partner’s career.
In short, some women are not willing to relocate because they are reluctant to cause upheaval in their partner’s life. In addition, they foresee the culture shock that their partner will experience and see that as another hurdle in already challenging times. In contrast, men tend to think about this later once the impact of culture shock has set in.
To facilitate true gender equality, global mobility policies need to accommodate not only the issues of female expatriates but also those of new family constellations.
Women’s seemingly less optimistic view however may be informed by their organizational culture. Looking at international postings to date, many family support policies have originally been developed for male assignees with children and a trailing spouse.
To facilitate true gender equality, these policies need to accommodate not only the issues of female expatriates but also those of new family constellations. The needs of single parents, for example, are often overlooked – and the majority of single parents are women.
For this to work, companies should proactively recruit high potential female talent and give them plenty of time to mull over the idea of an international assignment. Then employers can work with candidates to overcome any concerns through initiatives such as intercultural training for the whole family. There will also be time to organize a support network, such as a buddy system. It is a matter of talent pipeline management.
Cultural barriers – facts versus myth
Rationales for choosing men over women for international postings have included:
- In some cultures, women are still not seen as equal as their male counterparts. Companies who research the country well know that it will be easier for a man to carry out the job. This is not great for the company but it may be easier to implement.
- Men have more of the resilience that international postings require
Such beliefs reflect a business culture that makes decisions for women based on an ingrained perception. While these unconscious biases are easily debunked on our social media feeds, they still inform the system in which we all operate.
To update the system will require proactive decision makers. Rather than assuming women are not resilient enough, why not search internally for resilient women? If the assignment is in a country where women have different rights, then you have the opportunity to identify a woman with the confidence, courage and commitment to accept this challenge – all great qualities which are likely to make her successful in the role.
Hélène Ratte, EMEA HR Partner who initiated Deloitte’s ’Women in the workforce’ program, understands this. When appointing an international assignee, she says that “First and foremost, we find the person qualified to fit the clients’ needs and then HR ensures that qualified women are part of those short-listed for the assignment.”
Ratte is aware that when she sends someone to the Middle East they have to be able to cope with the cultural complexity. When she feels a woman candidate is suitable for the job, Ratte builds up the case to make sure the candidate is accepted.
Thanks to key players like Ratte who actively question cultural barriers, Deloitte is a company that actively encourages the development of women’s careers.
Lack of female role models
It’s much easier to commit to something when you’ve seen it work for someone else. And sure enough, the scarcity of female international assignees in organizations contributes to itself.
Global Mobility professional Helen Cole observes:
“Men see their peers going off on assignment all the time and it is almost the expected path to career progression in this global workplace. Women, however, are not seeing their peers, fellow female colleagues, going on assignment and any that do are still seen as trailblazers rather than the norm. This culture, no doubt, contributes to decisions on who is offered assignments and who is not.”
To escape this Catch-22 again requires decision makers to swim against the grain. Instead of assuming that female staff will not leave for some countries with their families, ask and see what the response is. This would then encourage more women to go out there and write success for the organization as well as be a role model for female colleagues.
Women – the international assignees of the future
What companies also need to realize is that gender and global mobility is beyond just a social issue — it is highly problematic with financial, legislative, risk management, and staff retention implications. Understanding the full extent of lack of diversity, the consequences it has and truly recognizing the need for diversity will lead to the thinking that is required to harmonize the disparity.
Alongside this, it is time to start gathering more statistical data on this topic in companies so that changes in global mobility can be monitored. There is a real lack of data being collected by international companies on international assignees. The decision making as to who embarks on an international assignment needs to be addressed by men and women alike. Looking at the assignment in terms of the intercultural competences required and assessing applicants as individuals would be a step in the right direction.
By recognizing female assignees who have achieved international success, a company shows the value it assigns to women, and advertises its commitment to developing the best global mobility talent, regardless of gender.