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Addressing the Gender Gap in Global Mobility: How Can Global Mobility Professionals be more Involved?

Previously, we conducted some research and wrote an article about how women are still being systematically excluded from the consideration of international assignments. We looked at some of the most commonly cited factors which are preventing women from being considered for these international assignments, and have found that even though the world is changing, social perceptions and stereotypes are still influencing many situations within the workplace. We (and many other surveys) have found that women themselves are much more open to being sent on international assignments, no matter their personal situations.

In this situation, it is clear that the selection process of expatriates is flawed. To ensure that organisations meet their diversity and inclusion goals, they should also ensure that there is an equal representation of women in their expatriate population. Not only will this improve the image of the company, but the significant success rates of women on expatriate assignments is encouraging for both the organisation, and the female individual on the assignment.

This article will delve into how Global Mobility (GM) teams within organisations can help to increase the diversity of gender of their international assignees. To do this, this article looks at a different way to approach and structure GM within the organisation, and how GM can work collaboratively with existing entities within the company to provide a well-informed contribution to the selection decision.

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Global mobility (GM) professionals have been wondering about the significance of their roles for a number of reasons. Are they merely there to support human resources (HR) with their multitude of tasks in a purely administrative capacity? Or does establishing a GM team have a strategic purpose in increasing the organisation’s competitive advantage? As a branch of human resources departments in organisations, it is much more than a sub-group or sub-department in an organisation, as it deals with a phenomenon that is very complex. According to the Australian HR Institute (AHRI), global mobility:

“…is a large and complex area of Human Resource Management. Global mobility refers to managing both global and domestic assignments, national and international transfers, the planning and costing of inbound and outbound movements, being aware of the tax compliance issues, immigration issues as well as all the personal issues that arise when an organisation of moving people from one jurisdiction to another.”

The benefits of establishing a global mobility team are extensive. By creating a GM team, all that is listed above is concentrated to form a specialised team which can be integral to the success of the organisation. This is the alternative to the other previous solution, which is to ask HR to expand and extend their abilities and services.

The Issue

The issue being investigated in this article is how global mobility can help to increase the gender diversity of an organisation’s expatriate workforce. Aside from the multitude of functions shouldered by GM, their strategic and proper involvement can lead to the inclusion of female expatriates, without many additional processes.

Research has shown that women only make up approximately 25% of the expatriate population (Brookfield Global Relocation Services, 2016). Although organisations are very slowly striving to implement official and transparent procedures, many professionals admit that there is no formal selection process when international assignments become available, or if there are, that they are not adhered to strictly. The ramification of this is that perfectly capable and willing women are being left out. In the organisation in general, there has been much academic and industry research about the detriments of neglecting the female population of the workforce. It may be of no surprise that this is also pertinent to the expatriate population.

GM teams fit into this issue, as here we have an entity in an organisation that can positively influence the outcome of the selections being made to create a more balanced gender ratio. There are concerns that companies are not involving GM teams to their full potential by not appreciating the valuable knowledge they may have in the selection process of expatriates. With this concern, questions arise over whether they simply play a supportive role to HR, or whether their presence has a strategic value to the organisation.

Much research has been conducted into looking at what factors contribute to the low representation of expatriate females. On the individual level, academic research has been conducted into looking at the personality traits which are conducive to being viewed as a successful expatriate (Tzeng, 2006). At the organisational level, research conducted has recommended that organisations should adopt certain international human resource management (IHRM) policies and practices to ensure equality in expatriate selection (Mayerhofer, Hartmann & Herbert, 2004). At the environmental level, interest has been directed towards cross-cultural differences as an explanation for the lack of females in the expatriate population (Westwood & Leung, 1994). This article sits in the second category, where it explores the idea of recognising that strategically positioned GM teams can help organisations to reach their gender diversity goals in their expatriate population.

The Importance of Gender Diversity in the Expatriate Population

It is of paramount importance to cultivate human capital that is capable of bridging international differences and navigating the international scene. Without doing so means that organisations are left behind. By implementing the right strategies, they can become, and stay, leaders in their industry. Finding the right person for the job is essential, as many have argued that human capital is crucial in gaining a global competitive advantage (Bennis, 1989; Black et al., 1992; Pfeffer, 1994; Selmer and Leung, 2003).

There is the speculation that because the number of women in positions of power (such as managers, CEOs etc.) is comparatively smaller than the number of men in positions of power, the number of female expatriates is subsequently smaller than the number of male expatriates. However, research has found that the number of females attaining managerial positions is increasing at a much faster rate than the number of female expatriates (Tzeng, 2006). The International Labour Organisation reported that in 2012, the number of females in managerial positions in Australia to be at 36.2% (ILO – Bureau for Employers’ Activites (ACT/EMP), 2015, pp. 14). This is markedly higher than the number of Australian expatriate women, which is reflective of the world population, at 25%.

Homophily – the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with other individuals who are similar to themselves – is reflected in high-level executive boards where older males usually recruit new members who are similar to themselves. This is also applicable to the expatriate population, with male networking opportunities seen to be much more easily accessible and frequent than it is for females. We believe that there are two clear implications that result from not including women in expatriate assignments.

Firstly, not sending women will lead to worse assignment outcomes. Interviews in a study of expatriate women revealed that 97% of them reported their assignments to be successful (Adler, 1994). Reservations that women are not able to manage international assignments have been relayed to society in a way which segregates the perception of genders even more. The implications of not utilising female employees on expatriate assignments mean that organisations may not be capitalising on the strengths and attributes women possess (Dinella, Fulcher & Wiesgram, 2014).

In particular, international assignees need to have a diverse range of skills. Due to the fact that they will be working in a significantly different environment, there are many other factors that need to be considered. Indeed, it is important to be certain that they have the hard skills and experiences needed to complete the tasks required while on the international assignment. It is also important to take into consideration the soft skills – communication, people and social skills etc. An integral part to this concoction are psychological measures, such as cultural intelligence and emotional intelligence. Working in international environments, it would be essential to possess a global mind-set. By expanding the pool of possible candidates, organisations are increasing the number of people who have a wider variety or combination of desirable skills needed for successful international assignments.

Secondly, by not giving women an equal opportunity to go on overseas assignments, they are preventing women from pursuing a career path which leads to leadership. We briefly explored this idea and wrote an article about this previously. PwC have also presented a thorough findings on creating gender inclusive global mobility. Multinational organisations want to hire the best and the brightest. There is no doubt that as the number of women increase in tertiary education and in the work force, that they are equal contenders for top positions. “Employers cannot afford to miss out on this significant and growing talent pool” (PwC, 2016). Multinationals are also increasingly viewing international experience as important to a well-rounded career profile, heavily impacting the decision of executives to appoint an individual into a position of leadership. Without updating the process in which expatriates are chosen, women will find it more difficult to build the desired leadership career profile, which will then impact the gender ratio in higher leadership positions.

How Global Mobility Teams Can Increase Gender Diversity in the Expatriate Population

Females are generally less likely to be hired than males, particularly in expatriate roles. Linehan and Walsh (2000) found that the expatriate assignment has been developed in a way which favours the typical career progression of a male (reflected in experiences of people we’ve surveyed). This suggests that there are factors which favour the male expatriate candidates over their female counterparts. Selection processes and the way in which expatriate opportunities arise can largely affect the chances of women being considered as potential expatriates.

Not only are the physical processes not adequate in effectively taking into consideration all potential candidates, results from our survey of MBA students reveal that there is a large disconnect between reality and their perceptions. When asked to agree or disagree to this statement – “Men and women have equal opportunities to undertake international assignments in an organisation” – 76% of male participants agreed that men and women were given equal opportunities, while only 29% of women agreed.

In response to this situation, we argue here that GM teams can disrupt this archaic tradition and help organisations to embark in a process that provides a level starting point for all potential assignees. The issue here is that global mobility is not involved early enough in the process to be able to influence selection decisions, and so it may be that the individuals that end up being selected may not be the most appropriate for the assignment for a variety of reasons. We conducted a very small survey and sent them to selected GM professionals, and although the number of responses we gathered weren’t significant enough to make conclusive results, it provided a good insight into the possible trends of organisations and their use of GM teams. Most respondents replied that they did NOT feel that the most suitable assignees are selected for international assignments. Of course, this statistic may not be representative of all companies, however, it provides a little insight into issues that are existent.

Previously, GM’s role was seen as purely transactional. As organisations come to realise the complexity of the situation, they are beginning to rearrange the organisational structure to assign GM with more influence – the move from an administrative role, to a consultative role (Deloitte, 2015). In the consultative role, respondents to Deloitte’s ‘How is the role of Global Mobility’ Pulse Survey expressed that the GM should encompass the following four jobs:

  1. Advisor – a source of knowledge with problem solving skills, and able to build relationships
  2. Information Provider – sharing expertise in the area, providing education and information
  3. Partner – ability to build string relationships, as well as maintain mutually beneficial relationships
  4. Transactional – doing all of the above with efficiency, quality and cost effectiveness

With these jobs in mind, it is beneficial to fully take advantage of the advisory and information providing skills that a GM team should possess.

As an advisor, the GM team has the knowledge pertaining to not only the financial compliance within foreign countries, but also cultural differences and nuances which can heavily affect an assignee’s experience overseas, and consequently the success of the project. By providing and sharing such information with the wider HR team, or those that are making the decision of who should go, GM is able to better educate and consult their own company on the best assignee for the project.

A Holistic Approach

So far, this article has demonstrated that the number of male international assignees far outweigh the number of female international assignees on a worldwide scale, and this has implications on the success and quality of the projects undertaken. It has also looked at how the efforts and talents of the GM team have been underutilised, and argued that with the proper implementation of GM into the overall organisational strategy, they can significantly level the disparities between the number of male and female international assignees.

Currently, the majority of international assignee selection processes are very linear. An opportunity is identified – possible candidates are identified on the basis of performance, or through networks – possible candidates are interviewed – final selection is made – individual is sent overseas.

We believe that a more holistic approach to expatriate selection is necessary in order to ensure that the best and most appropriate candidates are being considered for the task, so that there is a higher chance of assignment success. As a result, this requires collaboration between four entities (Fig. 1):

1. The description of the job to be completed overseas

It is crucial to understand the intricacies of the assignment. Clear identification is needed of what skills are required to complete the task, as well as the soft skills needed to navigate possible cultural differences in communication and business etiquette that can assist a smoother business relationship.

2. The HR department

A part of HR’s job is to acquire the appropriate talent and provide the support to retain talent. It is also in HR’s best interest to act in accordance with the company’s diversity and inclusion policies and practices. As such, the they can provide GM with a wider variety of eligible assignees.

3. The GM team

As mentioned before, GM should have knowledge available regarding the foreign location. They have a better idea of the overseas situation and can provide all parties with the most crucial information pertaining to how the foreign location can affect the international assignment. They act as advisors and consultants, providing information about certain attributes of the location which may affect the job, or affect the assignee undertaking the project.

4. The Assignee

Naturally, organisations must consider the willingness of the identified candidate to go overseas. Their enthusiasm, expectation and attitude towards the possibility of going overseas will largely affect their experience and impact the outcome of the assignment. Understanding their concerns, and putting those concerns to rest, will greatly improve the relationship between the assignee and the organisation.

Figure 1

This intertwined process ensures that the most important information is accessible by all parties involved. In this collaborative process, we can see that not one entity is deemed as more important than another, and that the final selection decision is made on the basis of transparent and open discussions.


“The opportunity cost of prejudice – of rejecting women and limiting selection to men – is much higher than in previous economic environments.”

This is a comment that was made more than 20 years ago by an academic who was a pioneer in the research of women in management and expatriation. It could not be more relevant to the issue explored in this article. The potential for women to contribute unique and valuable insights to international assignments is still unrealised. It is no longer feasible to have the stereotypical individual – a Caucasian male in their mid-ages – be sent on expatriate assignments. As many larger, traditional multinational organisations move towards implementing diversity goals and achieving gender equality in their workforce, they need to be wary of actually implementing these strategies. What is the image they would like to convey to their clients, stakeholders and employees?

From this article, it is evident that GM teams should be seen as an equally important part of the decision of who to send overseas on an international assignment. This strategic, rather than supportive, placement of global mobility teams can ensure that they provide neutral input, much like HR, so that the decisions are not skewed by traditional decision-making processes which systematically excludes women.


Adler, N. J. 1994, ‘Competitive Frontiers: Women managing across borders’, Journal of Management Development, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 24-41.

Australian HR Institute 2017, viewed 9 November 2017, <https://www.ahri.com.au/assist/global-mobility>

Bennis, S. M. 1989, ‘On becoming a leader’, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.

Black, J. S., Gregersen, H. B. & Mendenhall, M. E. 1992, ’Global assignments: Successfully expatriating and repatriating international managers’, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Deloitte 2015, The Changing Role of Global Mobility: Strategic or Supporting Role?, United Kingdom.

Dinella, L. M., Fulcher, M. & Wiesgram, E. S. 2014, ‘Sex-typed personality traits and gender identity a predictor of young adults’ career interests’, Archives of Sexual Behaviour, vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 493-504.

Douiyssi, D. & Aldred, G. 2016, ‘Breakthrough to the Future of Global Talent Mobility’, Brookfield Global Relocation Services, viewed 9 November 2017, <http://globalmobilitytrends.bgrs.com/assets2016/downloads/Full-Report-Brookfield-GRS-2016-Global-Mobility-Trends-Survey.pdf>

ILO – Bureau for Employers’ Activities (ACT/EMP) 2015, Women in business and management: Gaining momentum, International Labour Organisation, Geneva.

Linehan, M. & Walsh, J. S. 2000, ‘Work-family conflict and the senior female international manager’, British Journal of Management, vol. 11, Special Issue, S49-S58.

Mayerhofer, H., Hartmann, L. C. & Herbert, A. 2004, ‘Career management issues for flexpatriate international staff’, Thunderbird International Business Review, vol. 46, no. 6, pp. 647-666.

Pfeffer, J. 1994, ‘Competitive advantage through people: Unleashing the power of the work force’, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.

Pricewaterhouse Coopers 2016, Modern Mobility: Moving Women with Purpose, Author, PwC.

Selmer, J. & Leung, A. S. M. 2003, ‘Expatriate career intentions of women on foreign assignments and their adjustment’. Journal of Managerial Psychology, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 244-258.

Tzeng, R. 2006, ‘Gender issues and family concerns for women with international careers: Female expatriates in Western multinational corporations in Taiwan’, Women in Management Review, vol. 21, no. 5, pp. 376-392.

Westwood, R. I. & Leung, S. M. 1994, ‘The female expatriate manager experience: Coping with gender and culture’, International Studies of Management and Organization, vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 64-85.

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