Female Expatriates Continue to be Underrepresented

Female Expatriates Continue to be Underrepresented

How the International Assignment Gender Gap is Impacting the Global Talent Landscape

As companies look to capitalize on the skills of their high performers and develop their future leaders, international experience is increasingly a must-have component for global leaders. Yet, even though women comprise a sizable portion of the global employable workforce, they are still underrepresented on international assignments. According to the BGRS 2015 Global Mobility Trends Survey, on average, women represent 19% of respondents’ international assignees. Although the number of female assignees has risen steadily over the past 20 years, and is double the amount from nearly two decades ago, companies still send significantly more men on international assignments than women. And this remains an issue; not only for companies looking to fill essential talent gaps, but for women themselves, especially in terms the long term impact on their careers.

While women are increasingly taking advantage of the career advancement opportunities, as well as the rich personal development experiences that are afforded by living and working in another country, companies must strive to better understand the drivers of this underrepresentation. For example, many barriers to achieving a greater number women as expatriates likely reflect many of the same hurdles women face when attempting to break through the glass ceiling and advance in their careers overall. However, there may well be additional factors at play. Only 22% of respondents to the 2015 Global Mobility Trends Survey indicated they used any type of candidate assessment, formal or informal, for selecting individuals to go on an international assignment. This means that the balance, or 78% or respondents, have no process in place at all. For these companies, choosing who gets selected to go on an assignment (and who doesn’t) may be grounded in an unintentional yet inherent bias which leads to fewer women being selected for assignments, especially those that have a spouse/partner and/or families.

In addition, despite the trend in some countries where more men are choosing to stay at home to become a caregiver in dual-income families, globally, the majority of professional women still shoulder primary care giving responsibilities for their family. These considerations, along with very real concerns about the impact of an international assignment on their spouse/partner’s career, may lead many women to self-select out of consideration for an international assignment. Indeed, according to the 2015 Global Mobility Trends Survey, 35% of company respondents to our survey feel that spouse/partner concerns were impacting their ability to attract international assignment candidates.

Some companies, however, are making strides. The 2015 Global Mobility Trends Survey indicated that women represent a higher percentage of assignees than the overall average in the Consumer Products and in the Healthcare/Pharmaceuticals industries (25% and 23% respectively). In some respects, this could simply be a reflection that women represent a higher percentage of the workforce on those industries as a whole. However, companies with a large volume of international assignments also have a higher percentage of female assignees than average. The larger international assignment programs tend to reside in larger companies which are more likely to have implemented formal programs targeted specifically at the professional development and career advancement of women.

Obtaining international experience is becoming more and more critical as a leadership skill. In fact, according to Deloitte and Bersin’s Human Capital Trends study, global cultural agility and collaboration have been identified as a vital part of a new set of leadership skills that are in high demand. Given that this imperative continues to be set against the persistent gender gap in international assignments, what can companies do to target this key talent segment?

Ensuring that international assignments are an integrated part of a company-wide developmental program that targets high potential employees is an important aspect for talent management. And making sure women have early career access to programs designed to offer them avenues to international assignments can pave the way for them to obtain career enhancing opportunities. This will not only improve the chances these women will be viewed viable candidates for future strategic assignments, it will also allow them to gain valuable international experience before they may be put in a position to have to make a critical career choice. Women who’ve had early developmental assignments may be better able to make a short term choice to pass up another international assignment due to family considerations or spouse/partner career concerns and not have it derail all future leadership opportunities.

Short term international assignments can be used as viable alternatives to long term assignments in their own right, but women may be able to take greater advantage of the benefits of such assignments, particularly if their family situation or spouse/partner’s career might otherwise prevent them from taking on a long term international assignment. While short term assignments are more commonly used for skills and training gaps versus more strategic objectives, the career benefit from several successful short term assignments can be a particular benefit to women.

As the cost of assignments continues to rise, companies are increasingly exploring the use of assignment alternatives such as commuter arrangements or frequent business travel. While these assignment types are not without concern, especially in the arena of compliance control; like short term assignments, they can offer women employees a way to gain international experience and widen their visibility factor, both of which can help enhance their future leadership opportunities.
Leveraging the experience of successful female expatriates as role models for aspiring young women may provide a company with two benefits. First, it offers prospective female assignees a model of female success and can provide them with a mentor as they look to build their leadership career and potentially embark upon an international assignment. It also allows former expatriates to utilize their international experience more fully upon repatriation.

Given the concern about future talent shortages, companies should make substantial efforts to identify and attract candidates of choice from this significant part of the global workforce. Whether women are self-opting out of assignments or are being passed over unintentionally, finding creative avenues to better leverage this group’s skill set for international assignments and for future leadership opportunities will be critical to a company’s success.

Explore the BGRS 2015 Global Mobility Trends Survey results – visit globalmobilitytrends.bgrs.com