Have questions? Ask us!

Gender and Global Mobility: Addressing the Gender Gap

Do a quick Google search on the best recruitment strategies and phrases such as “gender equality”, “ gender diversity”, and “inclusion” will surely pop up. This begs the question – are these phrases, coined only in the 21st century and proudly championed by corporations, mere buzzwords utilised at whim to portray a progressive thinking corporation? How does the concept of “gender equality” extend towards the entire firm? Or, is there still an underlying, unconscious prejudice so deeply entrenched we are unable to affirm its presence?

As organisations choose to expand operations overseas and form international hubs, the global mobility sector is now flush with females holding mobility jobs at differing levels. There is also gender diversity present in human resource departments at various companies. As such, to a certain extent, organisations can lay claim to gender equality in their workplaces.

1.1 Statistics on Female Expatriates 

Yet, a more thorough examination of the type of international assignees under the helm of global mobility managers reveals a jarring difference. Despite women increasingly provisioned the opportunity to be leaders at their companies and the importance of international exposure to one’s career, assignees are still more likely to be male – this disparity, which we will explore in the later part of this paper, is surprising.

Hence, we should consider the reasons behind the low number of female expats sent for assignments overseas by their employers (compared to males), and possible strategies to assuage the issue.

Over the last decade, despite a wealth of highly skilled females entering the workforce and a heavier emphasis on gender equality at workplaces, female participation in international assignments has not seen the same growth. According to international consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), since 2005 there has not been an observable upward trend in the proportion of female expatriates among more than 10,000 international assignees. Although demand for global mobility is at a high, there is a disjoint when comparing the actual number of female assignees.

The gender disparity in overseas assignments does not come to a surprise to us, a global employment organization. Our data has revealed that among the workers we have deployed for companies all over the world, a disconcertingly low 16.7% consist of women. Further analysis of data from industry leaders corroborate with our findings.

Another report by PwC and University of Melbourne’s Centre for Ethical Leadership (CEL) revealed that only a quarter of expatriates originating from Australia are women. Across the world, survey results and data have shown a lower proportion of women in overseas assignments, yet women are reasonably represented in administrative and human resource positions. The report, titled “Addressing gender bias in global mobility: developing female leaders,” found that 70 per cent of female professionals wished to work beyond Australia during their careers, but a myriad of factors, including fears concerning repatriation as well as a dearth of role models, daunted them.

On a related note, a separate report examining 4,000 professionals from 40 countries discovered that 71 per cent of female millennials wished to venture beyond their home countries for work, but only one fifth of current international assignees were women and just 22 per cent of global mobility administrators were dynamically attempting to boost the proportion of female overseas workers.

Such numbers are telling of the worrying disconnect between female mobility demand and the lack of women who get to work overseas. However, to identify why exactly this issue is caused, a variety of challenging factors have to be called into question. Firstly, are women shying away from such opportunities when presented to them? Or is there an unconscious bias for corporations to be inclined towards males whenever there is an overseas opportunity, an inherent preference which allows males to automatically be selected for international assignments?

The data on hand presents several vital questions regarding the sector’s understanding about this pertinent issue and perhaps, their lack of it. However, there is an opportunity to dish out further attention and support, allowing for more informed discourse to derive the most beneficial strategies, in order to better women’s opportunities in overseas assignments, pushing for a more unequivocal gender equality.

1.2 Section summary

Gender equality at the workplace does not literally translate to or conclude at having a 50:50 ratio of male and female employees at the workplace. Deeply ingrained biases are present, resulting in overwhelming majority of international assignees being men, when there may be equally qualified and capable women willing and available to take up the job. To ease the disparity, women should not only be considered for such engagements, but actively spurred to take them up.

It is pertinent for companies to address this issue, as it has monetary, legal, risk management, and talent retention consequences. Understanding the depth, implications, and genuine need for diversity will lead to formulating of strategies required to establish a better balance.

To comprehend the impact lack of diversity has, it is helpful to consider where it arises from, certain assumptions made about candidates due to gender, and strategies that can challenge these biases. The next section in this report will further explore this by examining factors influencing gender disparity.

Subscribe to get more insights like this.

2. Factors that influence Gender Disparity in Global Mobility

While the factors behind the lack of gender diversity in today’s modern mobility workforce are multifold, they fall into two main categories. One is management’s lack of understanding towards potential female assignees, resulting in mobility strategies that do not adequately accommodate women’s demand for overseas engagements. The other is an inaccurate perception of international secondments, resulting in potential female assignees turning down or shunning such jobs.

2.1 Common assumptions or biased attitudes resulting in gender skewed selections

Although females have shown an interest in overseas assignments, companies often assume that women with families would not want an overseas stint for fear of the obstacles in moving to another country. However, the aforementioned PwC study has shown that contrary to this common belief, a similar proportion of both women and men who would like to work overseas are parents – 41 per cent of women signalling their interest in an overseas engagement being mothers, and 40 per cent of interested males being fathers. This shows that there are women with families wanting to work overseas, and family is not a more pressing issue for women than it is for men.

Furthermore, recruiters in companies have a tendency to presume that women are less able to adapt to flying solo in a foreign country, hence choosing their male counterparts instead. However, women are generally inclined to flourish in a foreign environment, due to their tendency towards harmony and collaboration with others.

Hence, due to these biases, women have a higher likelihood of being sidestepped, even before the formal recruitment process has commenced.

2.2 Lack of transparency regarding mobility practices

Not enough information openly disseminated during the recruitment process has also been detrimental towards international mobility policies. More often than not, international assignments were taken on by those who searched for opportunities on their own initiative, or those who were more familiar with informal networks and communications. Studies have shown that as such, women are usually on the shorter end of the stick, as they are less likely to be involved in informal corporate activities (such as fast track programs, career counselling, and the ilk), and are also more passive when approaching such opportunities, unless they are absolutely confident they are able to meet all areas of the job scope.

Candidate assessments (informal or formal) are not utilised prior to recruitment, as indicated by about 25 per cent of respondents in the 2015 Global Mobility Trends Survey, meaning almost 75 per cent of companies whose employees were surveyed had no process in place. As such, management was more likely to pick out a candidate they already had in mind, and inherent biases also meant that they were more likely to select the candidate most similar to themselves. Given that the majority of senior leadership is male, the likelihood of unconscious gender bias affecting the selection is high.

2.3 Lack of role models

PwC’s study also revealed that not having enough role models to emulate may have resulted in females declining secondment to another country, as evidenced by the roughly 28 per cent of female respondents citing this factor, more than twice the proportion of male respondents (11.5 per cent) who cited it. This perpetuates, in a vicious cycle, an inaccurate perception of overseas assignments – females choosing not to head overseas as they have not observed anyone similar doing so, and junior staff subsequently following suit.

2.4 Perceived inequalities in international work opportunities

There is a perception that women expatriates have to put in more effort or drive than their male counterparts in order to reach the same level of accomplishment – 23 per cent of females believe so, as compared to just 8 per cent of males. Also, females are 19 per cent less likely than men to perceive equal opportunities for overseas postings. These beliefs, which manifest themselves in females more regularly than in males, result in qualified women taking themselves out of the race prematurely and relinquishing opportunities to men, contributing to the gender disparity.

2.5 Fears in repatriation

Another major reason why women are not likely to undertake overseas secondments would be concerns or fears when returning home. This occurs more regularly when the process for repatriation is unclear or not formalised. As such, those with established informal networks are more likely to be able to negotiate a better expat package or support – these are more likely to be men.

However, fears in repatriation can be eliminated or alleviated with a reliable support system or a senior management leader acting as a “sponsor” or role model for the assignee. A PwC employee who was repatriated described having such a mentor in the company as “solidifying her positive experience” during her time overseas for work. Receiving assistance from a superior throughout the entire assignment cycle – consisting of pre-assignment, on-assignment, and post-assignment – meant that the employee had greater peace of mind when seconded, and was also able to more easily attain a job that was well suited to her newly acquired skill sets and networks, upon her return.

2.6 Other extenuating circumstances – Employment policies or cultures in other countries

Some women turn down a coveted chance to work overseas as conditions in some host countries may result in heightened difficulties for female expats to flourish (although such challenges may be circumvented with adequate support systems implemented by the employer). Females are more averse to working in certain locations deemed unfavourable, for example in Middle Eastern locales. According to PwC, 48 per cent of women and 39 per cent of men stated that they would not be agreeable to relocating to the Middle East, with 43 percent and 39 percent of women and men respectively against working in Africa. Hence, further corporate support for both female expats and the host country would be required, if relocation to such locales is necessary.

2.7 Concerns with trailing spouses or due to being a dual income couple

While it is often assumed that the female earns less in a dual income couple (due to the pay gap), PwC’s survey revealed that 77 per cent of female respondents in a dual income relationship earned equal to or more than their partner. While it would make financial sense for the couple to move overseas (should the opportunity to relocate presents itself to the higher earning female), this has not translated to reality, given that currently, most international assignees are male. Companies would have to figure out and rectify the other possible obstacles preventing high earning females from taking on overseas assignments, despite it being more financially beneficial to the couple.

Another major concern listed by women when turning down an international job engagement would be concerns over whether their trailing spouse would be able to adapt to the new environment or successfully find a job to keep them occupied and contribute to the family. In the next section, we will delve deeper into the changing phenomenon regarding trailing spouses and its impact on gender diversity.

2.8 Section summary

To alleviate their concerns on overseas work, companies could increase or provide support networks or information sessions specifically geared towards women, which could allow them to glean insight on how selection works, and further information about host countries. It is also important for employers in host countries to have strategies implemented to cater towards female employees. There is also a pressing need for employers to discover what are the actual rather than presumed barriers preventing women from heading overseas for work, and strategize complementary tactics to counter them. Without the opportunity to work overseas, females would not be able to access “hot jobs”, as international exposure is considered to be a vital factor in climbing the corporate ladder. Lastly, when relocating overseas for work, one’s family is of utmost concern and importance, and next we will examine how trailing spouses of assignees are treated overseas, and the resultant challenges to the Global Mobility industry.

3. Trailing spouses and their Impact on Gender Diversity in Global Assignments

Coined by a Wall Street writer to describe a spouse who follows their partner overseas for work, the “trailing spouse” back then was usually a male professional and the trailing spouse was female. Usually, the trailing spouse would take on the role as being the primary caregiver in the family, and global mobility programs emphasised on keeping the primary care giver satisfied in a new environment.

Presently, the trailing spouse phenomenon interests us for a couple of reasons. Trailing spouses today have different requirements and circumstances. One recent trend is an increase in male trailing spouses.

3.1 Employment opportunities and needs for the trailing spouse

Although the trailing spouse may initially be thrilled at the thought of living in a foreign country, the novelty wears off, especially for longer job assignments. Holding a job could help to alleviate feelings of loneliness, inertia or even powerlessness. Duncan Macintosh, a male trailing spouse who works full time, said, “You need something to occupy yourself and you also need to make at least a token effort to learn the language.”

Furthermore, having a job could help one orient himself to the new country and feel included, he says. It is now easier for a dual income couple to succeed, given the advent of technology. Writers or programmers can conveniently work from home, given a computer and internet access. Duncan, who works remotely, manages to maintain a full time job wherever his wife needs to work, as the nature of his job is not grounded to a particular locale or office.

3.2 Challenges for Global Mobility teams

In developed countries, where the standard of living is considerably higher, and in a climate where expat packages are increasingly “lean” and “local”, a dual income is a necessity. Singaporean expatriate magazine Expat Living found that dual income couples are increasingly common. In a relationship where both parties are working, the couple is more likely to “localise” (renumerated with local salaries and conditions).

This is of concern to Global Mobility teams, who support international assignees and their families. Should the trailing spouse be unable to continue the career they had back home, be compensated lower than in their home countries, or be limited by cultural and language obstacles, the assignment may fail. Also, for assignees with children, the role of designated care giver has to be split among the two parents, and the level of support in the host country rendered towards the working parents will be a key challenge.

3.3 Disparity in male and female trailing spouses

The stark disparity in the proportion of male to female expats, as we have highlighted previously, is corroborated by PwC and our own findings. According to PwC, seven out of 10 female employees in the country would like to work beyond domestic shores but only 1 out of 4 expatriates are females. PwC’s study showed that almost half of female assignees were single, compared to 70 per cent of male assignees being married. These figures corroborate with our own, which reveal that at least half of women on assignment were single, and less than a fifth married. This is in contrast to the men, out of whom more than half were married.

When analysing such statistics, one would immediately assume that women with families are less likely to be interested in an assignment. In later sections, we will clarify this misconception and debunk other myths. Although there are demographic trends, female trailing spouses by and large are and will continue to be among the majority.

3.4 Spousal support

Unhappy spouses and family are a key reason why assignees repatriate early, and to mitigate this issue, companies in the Global Mobility industry can offer further spousal support. While programs to spur social integration (including classes to acclimatise to local cultures and providing contacts within the domestic expat networks) are already well established, further help can be rendered. For example, providing professional support to trailing spouses, such as career counselling or aiding in relevant paperwork for work permits or medical insurance, could lead to a more successful assignment outcome. Amsterdam, for instance, actively helps accompanying partners assimilate to their culture. The Expatcenter Amsterdam lends a helping hand to trailing spouses new to the city by providing professional guidance and support, allowing them to settle into Amsterdam more comfortably.

3.5 Section conclusion

For women who are fascinated by the idea of relocating to a new country for work, their initial interest may be dampened by the country’s social norms and regulations, which may not be applicable to their male peers. Take Saudi Arabia for instance, where gender segregation is regulated and women are disallowed from entering the country without a male sponsor. On the other hand, male trailing spouses may not be kindly looked upon. There is still a long way to go, before true gender parity across the Global Mobility industry can be achieved. The next section will continue to delve deep into the gender gap in Global Mobility, especially about how experiences and treatment of male and female assignees differ

4. How are Countries Different in Treating Male and Female Expats?

To quote a Forbes writer in her article on the relevance of international exposure, particularly for millennial women, “Global experiences build a variety of skills that are critical to career growth – cultural competency, flexibility, learning to work with various people and tactical problem-solving”. Yet, having the opportunity to work overseas may not come by that easily, especially for female assignees who have to accommodate an amalgamation of gender, cultural, and political factors in host countries, which their male counterparts may not necessarily face. Furthermore, male and female assignees have dissimilar concerns, resulting in vastly different experiences when on assignment.

4.1 Female Expats and International Assignments

As aforementioned, PwC discovered that more women expressed disinterest in working in the African and Middle Eastern regions, often considered to be hazardous and male-dominated respectively. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, females are prohibited from working without a husband or male sponsor of sorts, and in public areas it is a must for females to be separated from the men. Such policies point towards a patriarchal society, which is severely disadvantageous to the female corporate leader, who has to master the mountainous skill of asserting herself without breaking societal norms.

On the other hand, Nordic countries such as Iceland, Norway, Finland and Denmark are well regarded for being the best countries in the world for expat women. Maternity and parental leave, as mandated by the government, have contributed to this title. Women looking to build their families or bring them over as dependents would certainly look forward to such benefits. Other countries, such as New Zealand, have a robust female economic and/or political participation, and as such also seen as apt choices for female expats to work in, due to their focus on gender equality in policies, helping women avoid workplace discrimination.

4.2 Discriminatory work regulations

Bizarrely, in some countries, governments have prevented women from certain types of jobs and industries. For example, in Russia, females are banned by law from 400 different types of jobs, ranging from those portrayed as harmful, and underground work. Women’s health issues are the rationale behind this regulation, and the forbidden job list includes a variety of manual jobs ranging from truck driving for the transport of agricultural produce, to woodworking.

Similarly, the World Bank’s recent report has discovered that there is at least one prohibition on women’s work in almost every country in the Middle Eastern and North African regions. Restrictions on women’s work are also present on high-income and/or developed countries, such as Chile, Czech Republic, France, Japan, South Korea, Poland, and Slovenia. Despite culture, geographical location, or economic development, the sterner sex no doubt hold greater power and flexibility in the jobs they can access.

4.3 Dealing with culture shock

Across the world, women have cited gender discrimination and to adapt, they develop strategies to accomplish their jobs. According to BBC, which ran a report on the experiences of female expats internationally, a female assignee working in Switzerland was cited to have prepared reports presented by male colleagues, in order to retain her client’s attention. Saudi Arabia limits transport options for females, and has a strict dress code for women. Workwise, women are not allowed to work in the same office as men. Women have to seek out loopholes to do their jobs, including booking official meetings to meet with male colleagues.

As advised by experts, female expats have to strategise coping mechanisms or face feelings of isolations. One such solution includes building relationships with fellow expats with similar value systems.

4.4 Unsafe conditions in host countries for female expats

Some international assignments might be considered to be hazardous towards female assignees, due to the extent of sexism in certain countries. A female expat in India was both sexually and physically harassed by a superior, and that while women were quoted to be “revered as goddesses, bringers of life and the figurehead of the home”, they are also simultaneously “not given any tangible power or space in the public sphere”. It is noteworthy that such experiences may be subjective and dependent on the region of the country.

4.5 Laws skewed towards males

Countries governed with religious values may have unintentionally set in place laws that are detrimental to the female expat. In Dubai, sharia law, which is grounded in Islamic principles, can result in a male gaining custody of a child during divorce, despite both parties not belonging to the faith and even if the marriage was not ordained locally. Research prior to secondment is important for the female assignee, who should look up any unique regulations and be aware of the possible loopholes.

In our next and final section, we will consider and expound on the strategies companies can deploy or areas they can look into, in order to mend the gender gap in international assignees.

5. Addressing the Gender Gap

In the earlier sections, we explored why and how the disparity in global mobility is engendered. To capture and retain female talent in senior management, mobility opportunities have to be offered or their career progression would be obstructed. Here are some strategies companies can consider, to bridge the gap in global mobility.

5.1 “Start early, start small” – Identifying high performing female professionals early in their careers

“Developing Female Leaders”, a report by PwC, has shown that a significant number of women would like to have international exposure early in their careers, preferably in the first six years. This is particularly beneficial to women who would like to eventually start a family, and having received international exposure at a younger age, when responsibilities are considerably lighter, would be suitable. As such, they are more likely to undertake offshore engagements earlier in their careers than men, and less so at approximately age 40.

To spur female expat participation in mobility, companies can start to keep an eye out for high performing female juniors, and send them on short term assignments to prep them for a longer duration overseas secondment, which would be crucial as their career matures. Such shorter term engagements would also be beneficial to the female’s personal and professional growth, as it increases her employability and differentiates her in an increasingly competitive job market.

5.2 Increasing awareness among leaders on unintended gender bias, and formalising recruitment procedures

As discussed in earlier sections, employers may unwittingly be affected by gender bias due to deep seated assumptions about female expats, resulting in them being excluded from secondment opportunities. To establish gender neutrality and objectivity, a plausible workaround for this issue would be having human resource departments develop formal processes and/or training, and equipping managers with relevant information of all suitable candidates.

Telstra, for example, is currently implementing a new centralized talent database, which managers can use to look up every employee’s details, including skillset, location, experience, academic background, and most crucially, their interest in an overseas assignment. Such a concise database would make it more convenient for managers to access important details and make a more informed decision on which candidate would be the best for a certain type of posting.

5.3 Building engagement

Particularly among millennials, job hopping is becoming more of a norm, and it is rare for an employee to build their career in a single company. Engagement could help to build loyalty and willingness to transition to an overseas position if the opportunity calls for it. According to PwC, building loyalty via engagement works better for females than it is for men. Moreover, a loyal employee would be more likely to continue her career in the same company after repatriation.

5.4 Championing strong female mentorship

Being the biggest reason for turning down an overseas assignment, the issue of having a lack of female role models could be resolved by championing high profile, successful female expats. Aside from having female mentors available for consult or moral support regarding a potential job posting overseas, it would also be helpful to have a mentor or sponsor in the host country proper, who would be able to assist the employee in getting oriented to the new culture.

5.5 Robust spousal support system

As discussed previously, for an assignment to be completed successfully, one of the top factors cited by a female expat would be her spouse’s adjustment to the new country. Spouses who have transitioned well are usually gainfully employed and have assimilated into their new cultures. Hence, strong spousal support systems, as well as arrangement of work visas and career counselling (should the spouse choose a different career pathway would be immensely helpful for the trailing spouse.

5.6 Formalizing repatriation processes

Unless stipulated prior to secondment, there is no guarantee that there will be a suitable role for the repatriating employee, that will allow her to utilize her new knowledge and experience. This is a major concern, and ensuring proper repatriation package or process is important for retention rates of its assignees, as PwC discovered that almost half, or 44 per cent of employees departed from the organization within two years of repatriation.

12 months before the seconded employee is due to return home, Telstra discusses suitable opportunities with the worker through its structured repatriation program and Telstra Career Centre. This helps to ease any uncertainty or worry, and allows the employee to transition to a job that will allow her to fully utilize her new skills and experience gained from working overseas.

6.0 Conclusion

With more women entering the workforce than ever before, their ability to earn and contribute to their firms is unparalleled. To help them fully utilise their potential, organizations need to identify major drivers and key biases that cause so few women to take up global mobility opportunities despite robust demand, and work closely with their human resource departments and senior leadership to close the gap. With concerted effort from all stakeholders and a well thought out strategy, global mobility diversity could help to greatly benefit the organization, as well as help more female expats succeed in an increasingly competitive job market.

Check out the second part of our series on Gender and Global Mobility. It features an extensive study undertaken by Andy Almenara, Lilla Kelemen-Toroczkai, Myrophora Koureas, Evan Zhang who are students completing the MBA Program at The University of Sydney Business School.  The student work was supervised by Associate Professor Rae Cooper and Jane Counsel.

We want to explore the reasons behind who gets selected for an assignment. In particular, what role does Global Mobility play?We could use your help in a big way if you contributed to this 5 minute anonymous survey. so we can have a better idea of how our industry can get more women on international assignments. 

 Need more information about employing in a new country? Learn more about:

Looking for a better way to employ someone in a new country? Get in touch.

Related Articles

Join 5000+ employers managing overseas employees

Subscribe for tips on hiring and managing international workers!