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Gender divide over approach to international assignments

Male expats focus on career development while women pursue adventure and experience

More than half (51%) of male expats believe their experiences working overseas have accelerated their career development, while just over a third (39%) of female expats agree, new research from AXA Global Healthcare has discovered.

The AXA World of Work Report found that 43% of men feel their international postings have enabled them to become regional experts and have increased their professional value to future and current employers, compared to 36% of women.

However, the research also revealed that women are more likely to continue living abroad on completion of their assignments; with 37% choosing to permanently move to another country, and 56% saying they would continue living and working in the country they currently reside in. These figures fell to 23% and 47% respectively among male expats.

AXA cited these gender differences as evidence that men and women don’t have the same motivations for taking international placements. Expat case studies also supported the suggestion that men move abroad to further their careers, while women seek adventure and personal experiences, it said.

“People choose international assignments for so many different reasons; some relocate to develop their careers while others want to experience life in different parts of the world,” commented Tom Wilkinson, CEO of AXA Global Healthcare.

For Benjamin Bader, academic partner and strategic adviser to the RES Forum and professor of strategic management and organisation at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany, these differences are less about motivation and more indicative of wider discrimination against female employees when it comes to international opportunities.

“We’ve found that supervisors tend not to offer international placements to female employees because there is the assumption that they wouldn’t be interested,” he told HR magazine. “HR needs to get better at showing women that there are opportunities to go abroad in the first place and that this can help their career progression if they do.”

David Collings, professor of human resource management and associate dean for research at DCU Business School, agreed that women are often underrepresented in international assignments.

“Because so few women have typically been selected for overseas assignments, the women that are putting themselves in these positions are breaking the mould and so this might indicate why they see it as more of an adventure than men, who have seen peers and mentors take up these opportunities for some time,” Collings told HR magazine.

Collings went on to say that “HR and global mobility functions need to work more closely to increase the number of women selected for these opportunities”.

“The selection process tends to be informal and ad-hoc, which can again lend itself to biases,” he added. “By formalising the process, organisations are likely to see a more diverse group of workers taking up international placements going forwards.”