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Women of the world: global mobility and gender

A recent survey found women make up a small percentage of the expat assignment population. So what's going wrong?

Cards on the table, this is a tricky topic to discuss. On the one hand you risk reinforcing stereotypes. On the other you can become so conscious of being politically correct that you fail to move the debate forward at all.

Perhaps that’s why the subject of the huge dearth of women doing expat assignments, and benefiting from them in the long term as much as their male counterparts, hasn’t received as much attention as it should have.

But you can’t escape the starkness of the stats. A recent RES Forum survey found that less than 20% of the expat assignment population is female at 57% of responding organisations. It also found that, while both male and female expats experience a positive short-term effect on their careers from assignments, men enjoyed better career progression long term. And it’s not just women being held back. The trend is detrimental to companies too because (as has been well-proven) more diverse teams are more profitable.

There are two oft-cited factors preventing women from going on global assignments. One is risk-aversion. “Women are a bit more considered and less likely to take risks,” claims Andrea Piacentini, co-founder of the RES Forum and head of reward, UK and Europe at Standard Life. “Global assignments are risky. They can go badly wrong. And career rewards are higher in riskier places such as emerging markets.”

The second reason is family; and not just children. Joanne Danehl, global practice leader for language and intercultural training at Crown World Mobility, says women are more likely to think of the impact on their partner: “Research shows that female leaders feel an obligation to balance work and domestic responsibilities [more than male ones],” she explains, adding: “There is a residual belief that a man’s career is the dominant one and the family will follow that. On the whole men don’t consider the impact on their partner’s career as much as women do.”

While those barriers are easy to understand, the reasons women are not benefiting as much from international assignments in the long term are much more complex and insidious. As Elisabeth Kelan, professor of leadership and director of Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders points out: while the global experience may be another string to a woman’s bow there are still “many other gender biases working against them”, and expat assignments are not “a silver bullet”.

Nevertheless, companies could do much more to allay female fears. The RES Forum research, for instance, shows that 54% of employees moderately disagree or completely disagree that top management tries to increase the number of females on international assignments. That many do not even keep track of how many women are on assignment suggests a fair amount of lip service is being paid.

“It never crosses many companies’ minds to monitor this – even though having international experience is key if you want to be a global leader,” says Kelan. “If you want to be really progressive put in targets. And track how many women you ask on assignment. I did some research that looked at why women don’t get these opportunities; they are simply not asked. The assumption is ‘she has two kids and a husband she won’t want to go abroad’. There’s an implicit bias that women are not interested. Women might not be raising their hands to do this additional challenge because they have very busy lives, so HR must be more proactive.”

Danehl takes this advice one step further by suggesting that companies send a short survey to current and past female assignees asking about their experiences: “This can provide interesting insight and anecdotes that can make your numbers come alive.”

The good news is there are many practical and straightforward moves that can be made. First off, companies can allow candidates more time to plan their assignment. According to Danehl there’s a growing effort among forward-thinking businesses such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble to give staff a much more flexible time limit during which to acquire international experience.

For this to work companies should plan their talent pipeline earlier; identifying high potential female talent to give them plenty of time to mull over the idea. Then employers can work with candidates to overcome any concerns through initiatives like intercultural training for the whole family. There will also be time to organise other supports, such as a buddy system.

And it’s not just the foreign transition that needs to be discussed. Reintegration back home is often a neglected topic, says Alison Dodd, CEO of UK payroll and HR support provider Moorepay. “Companies don’t think about the path back. At the time you move there should be an upfront conversation about coming back.”

The elephant in the room that often remains, however, is that of the ‘trailing’ male spouse – a term that perhaps needs serious reassessment in light of how uncomfortably it may sit with some male egos.

While the business trend might be away from paternalism, perhaps in these cases there is an argument for companies to delve deeper into candidates’ home situations, says Piacentini. “In HR circles there may be a need to be more paternalistic and involved to drive successful outcomes,” he says. “That might mean supporting trailing male partners more. It’s really worth thinking about the role of the male partners on assignment because they are an overwhelming contributing factor.”

The old adage ‘happy wife, happy life’ has long rolled off the tongues of businessmen in relation to keeping their spouses happy at home so they can thrive. Perhaps this phrase is in need of updating for the 21st century of increasingly globally mobile women. After all ‘if she has a happy man, then the woman can’.