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Gender diversity and global mobility

While women make up about 40% of the global workforce, only 15-25% of international assignees are women

Creativity and innovation within an organisation are two things that every company should be looking to encourage and that should have a positive impact on performance. Diversity can be considered an antecedent for creativity and innovation and has been identified as a strategic business issue. While there are many different aspects of diversity, a crucial component is of course gender- something that is also relevant in the field of global mobility.

German DAX companies (the 30 major German companies trading on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange) are an interesting study group as they represent the corporate landscape of one of the largest economies in the world. From a senior management team perspective, there are still five times more male board members than there are female. Such disproportionate representation between the genders is also visible among international assignees. While women make up about 40% of the global workforce, studies on global mobility reveal that only about 15-25% of international assignees are women.

As those on overseas assignments get invaluable international experience, this is a chance to work on their personal career plan and perhaps take the next step on the career ladder faster.

In a recent empirical study, we looked in detail at the subject and surveyed employees working for DAX companies with regard to their international experience, especially when it came to potential gender differences.

The RES Forum research identified three key points. First, there appears to be a widespread belief that women are not interested in accepting international assignments. However, we found that more than 50% of women were interested in accepting assignments and reported that they believed their supervisors were aware of this willingness. This suggests that there may well be a simple communications problem that needs to be resolved.

Secondly, we identified possible corporate resistance in sending women abroad, with corporate structures and selection procedures not as gender neutral as they might be. While 80% of men consider the selection process in their company 'gender neutral,' only 44% of women support such a statement. It would appear that women seem to have a harder time positioning themselves as suitable candidates as the selection processes don’t favour them.

Finally, with regard to work/life balance, both genders point to a lack of flexibility in the format of international assignments. Interestingly for men it is still easier to combine work and family since - of those people with international experience - 71% of men were accompanied by their partner while only 26% of women were accompanied. In other words, women are more willing to support the international career of their husband than men are willing to support the international career of their wife.

While these numbers only reflect people who actually accepted the assignment and we do not know how many men or women actually turned down an international assignment offer because of family reasons, there are good reasons to believe that women are more willing to sacrifice their own career for their husbands. This has been confirmed in previous studies and may be an additional factor being considered by managers when making an offer in the first place and, therefore, often leading to men being the preferred choice.

Based on our research, we have suggested some simple procedures that could help companies achieve better diversity management for female expatriates. Firstly, companies need to reduce the gender bias in the selection process. This can be addressed by simply improving the communication between managers and employees. Employees need to have the chance to communicate their interest to go abroad and managers need to be open to that – or even actively check such potential willingness to go abroad.

A gender sensitive selection process is necessary, and formalised, standardised procedures can help achieve this. To identify the relevant characteristics of candidates for a particular assignment, the global mobility department should be included from the very beginning and diversity and global mobility management should work hand-in-hand.

Finally, formalised mentoring structures can improve individual career planning and consider the specific needs of women. Providing clear goals for the assignment period will make the investment of time and effort more measureable and more attractive. Also, assignment package design should allow for increased flexibility and provide more open structures, as well as making an assignment period more attractive for women. The goal is that it’s not just women but also men with families that benefit when assignment packages are more family friendly.

Benjamin Bader is an academic partner and strategic adviser to the RES Forum and professor of strategic management and organisation at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany