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Here’s Why We Should Send More Young Women on International Assignments

The 21st Century is an era of increasing equality, social integration and celebration of diversity. Yet, one topic in particular continues to rise to the surface, showing no signs of retreat – gender diversity. In a generation where millennials drive the future and bring crucial new insights to businesses, gender diversity is an issue far more imminent that you might expect.

Each year, Shield GEO publishes a series on gender diversity within international assignments. We started off by exploring the issue of gender disparity in the international assignment population, and identifying its root causes. Later we published a number of articles that sought to educate stakeholders on how to address this issue and mend the gender gap in global mobility.

This year, we actually put the issue to practice, which sparked our decision to write this article. In June, we sent one of our female employees, Stella Huang, on an international assignment to Europe for six months where she was given the flexibility to work from the London office or nomadically around Europe. Stella opted for a mix of both. While working nomadically, support becomes less immediate. Success requires strong business acumen, greater independence and self-discipline. These qualities are gender neutral, but far too often we see biased attitudes and assumptions being made that results in skewed selections of assignees.

A common myth about international assignments is that gender is something that should be considered. In our experience, gender was never a factor in Stella’s assignment. In fact, it would actually require some effort to even imagine circumstances where gender would be a legitimate consideration. This article will reflect on how Shield matched Stella to this opportunity, and delve into the inner thoughts of our female assignee. 

The Issue

20%. This is the proportion of women within the total global mobility population as reported by PwC. Yet, the same study revealed that 70% of females are willing to work abroad. It is the subconscious biases of employers that lead to many high-potential women being pre-emptively excluded from international assignments and thus fall behind in accumulating the crucial skills needed for career growth. In the medium term, this will cause the gender gap to widen at the executive level, but the impact on an organisation is actually far more immediate than this. Why? The answer is in the millennials.

Sky-high demand by talented young females

The demand for international assignments by capable, female millennials like Stella, will soar in the near term. If organisations aren’t prepared to offer overseas opportunities to this cross-section of the workforce, they will fail to attract and retain talented females. So what is behind this urgency? It begins with a series of trends around higher education.

Education statistics for Australia, UK and the US reveal that the number of female university students outnumber male students. As of 2017, 55.5% of all university students in Australia and approximately 58% of all college students in the US were female. While students are seizing opportunities to study abroad more than ever before, you may be surprised to learn that the gender gap is actually reversed for overseas study.

Females comprised 66.5% of total US students studying abroad for the academic year 2015-2016, and this gender gap has existed for the last 10 years. The ERASMUS mobility program, one of the largest in the world supporting European students studying abroad, saw a similar gender gap across countries and subject areas (Böttcher et al. 2016). This clearly reflects the enthusiasm by young females to travel and gain a global perspective. What is even more surprising is that the percentage of females from elite American universities undertaking study abroad programs in Africa reached as high as 90%. This is a testament against the myth in global mobility that some locations are less favourable for women. These study abroad experiences motivate young females, like Stella, to seek employment that can offer global opportunities. So, if organisations want to remain competitive, they must let go of gender-based biases and ensure that they are well-positioned to cater for this wave of skilled young women with overseas experience, entering the workforce.  

Lack of role models in international assignments

Another issue is that there is a lack of female role models to normalise the experience of working abroad for other female employees. If we take studying abroad as an example, word of mouth is the biggest motivator for students to study overseas. Through hearing about the experience of others, students gain an understanding of what they can look forward to and any challenges they may face. This is precisely what is needed in global mobility at an organisational level. Prospective female assignees may look to these role models for support, to relieve any uncertainties and evaluate their own potential future success (Shortland 2014). Stella herself had role models who she sought influence from and through writing about her experience, she can stand as a role model for prospective female assignees.

Our Business Need

The role was initially created to satisfy a business need. A significant number of the employees that Shield onboards for our clients are based in Europe, yet our Implementation Consultants are located in Sydney, representing a 6-8 hour time zone difference. To facilitate faster client communication and a more efficient on-boarding process, we knew it was important to have an implementation consultant based in Europe. One option was to hire an employee based in Europe and train them remotely, but this would raise difficulties due to time zone differences. Our second option was to hire and train an employee locally, making clear the prospect that they may be deployed overseas to work into a new time zone. We chose the second path and this is where the opportunity for Stella sprung to life.

Why Did We Choose Stella?

Which factors did we really consider for this assignment? In the words of our founder, Tim Burgess, the ideal assignee is, “Someone who is outgoing, a capable communicator, clearly understands the subject matter and can work independently”. What do all these traits have in common? The answer is, they are all gender neutral.

Stella is a curious and ambitious millennial with dreams of exploring the world, evidenced in her ten month exchange program in Berlin during University. There she met students from various European countries, a few of which became some of her closest friends. Her ability to maintain deep relationships, along with her light-heartedness and constant enthusiasm to learn about others made her the ideal assignee. As the assignment requires adapting to various environments and cultural settings, Stella’s outgoing nature and existing relationships across Europe gives her a comparative advantage in adjusting both personally and professionally. While men tend to have wider networks, as argued by Relocate Global, these numbers are accumulated throughout times when a male-dominant culture was still present. In the 21st Century we have seen a shift away from this as organisations increasingly implement measures to develop women’s networks leading to many women becoming equally as opportunistic and proactive as men. Stella is a prime example of this. In reflecting on our decision to deploy Stella overseas, we’ve noticed that these personality traits are indeed gender neutral. There was nothing to suggest that assigning a male employee would be any more suitable than Stella. 

Given Stella’s flexibility to work nomadically, personal and professional independence, as well as a diligent work ethic is crucial to success. While these qualities are not defined by gender, many companies still assume that women are less adaptable to being alone in a foreign country. Stella presents an example of the flaw in this assumption. Her exchange experience pushed her outside of her comfort zone, developing her self-independence and problem solving skills. She had also been on a number of short-term (1 week) personal trips to China where she continued to work for Shield. Throughout these, she experienced the pressures of working away from Shield’s management team, balanced with the excitement of travelling and embarking on culinary adventures. In a study conducted by PwC, a Global HR Head expressed that ‘starting early and starting small’ through identifying top-performing females at junior levels and giving them an opportunity to work for short-terms overseas, increases their likelihood of accepting a more strategic and longer term assignment later on. Not only this, Stella’s ability to maintain a high quality of work while on these trips also solidified our confidence in her suitability for this longer term assignment. These experiences as a whole justified her independence and diligence, and the word “female” was never raised in discussion.

Supporting Stella’s International Assignment

How did Shield support Stella? Was it any different that she was a female? No, we supported her in the same way we would have any other assignee. As Stella was a millennial, a generation defined by their capability in balancing family, relationships and work, we understood that circumstances may change, that could impact her ability to go on the assignment. Thus, we made it clear that the choice to work overseas was completely hers. In the 5 months leading up the assignment, we held monthly meetings with her to ensure that she was still comfortable and enthusiastic about the opportunity. Furthermore, Stella was provided with additional financial compensation and given the flexibility to spend it however she wished. In this way, she could allocate the sum in a way that most suits her needs and priorities whether it be travelling, accommodation, meals or going out.

Something even more important however, is personal support. This appeared difficult at first as Stella had the flexibility to work from anywhere in Europe, a continent in the opposite time zone to her management team. Yet, we navigated our way around this. Prior to Stella’s departure, we set up various online and multimedia channels for ease of communication. We also facilitated communication between Stella and various Europe-based Shield employees to help Stella expand her overseas support network. Ironically enough, as a firm that helps companies from across the globe employ remote workers, 60% of our own employees work remotely.

In fact, most of our remote employees are also female. Their continued success at Shield and strong work-life balance, solidified Stella’s confidence in her abilities and drove her enthusiasm towards the international assignment. This exemplifies the need for role models as they help to alleviate an employee’s uncertainties surrounding their success rate, level of support that they will receive, and the working environment of the new country. Varma and Russell (2016) argued that a high-potential female assignee may be reluctant to apply if they feel that they would be disadvantaged due to uncertainties around the new location’s work and social norms. Yet, by matching Stella with foreign colleagues, she is given an avenue to seek professional and personal advice from people who deeply understand the culture of their home country. This type of support is one which colleagues in Sydney may not have been able to provide.

What did it mean for her?

Indeed many biases and assumptions surrounding gender exist in relation to assigning employees internationally. But what do prospective female assignees really think? Are these assumptions as real as many perceive? Here are Stella’s thoughts prior to her departure.

Stella has always been passionate about travelling and she viewed this assignment as a perfect opportunity to work in a novel environment while embarking on travel adventures in her spare time. When we finally aligned her to this opportunity, she was ecstatic. Interestingly, the RES forum notes that it is rare for international assignees to be able to work part-time or from home, but such flexibility can be highly attractive to many female employees. Stella in fact sees the flexibility in this experience as one that would enhance her self-discipline, organisation skills and ability to collaborate with people across various geographical regions. Another driving factor for Stella was the chance to extend her German vocabulary, as the prospect of being trilingual was highly attractive to her.  

Stella’s final motivation refutes the misconception that women are less adaptable to being in a foreign country, instead highlighting that they welcome opportunities to further their career. Stella was notably excited about the change in environment and the opportunity to try a new lifestyle. This justifies the traits of curiosity and adventurousness that define millennials. Simultaneously, it provides an example that women perceive the opportunity to adapt to a new environment as an invaluable learning experience rather than fear it.

Conclusion

In reflecting on our assignment of Stella, it is clear that the qualities which make a successful assignee can be possessed by anyone, regardless of gender. It was not until we wrote this article that Stella, as a female assignee, crossed our mind. Yet, organisations continue to display gender bias when selecting employees for international assignments. This can be fatal in an era where so many skilled millennial females are entering the workforce. By transparently outlining Stella’s experiences, she not only serves as an example of this talent pool but also acts as a role model for prospective female assignees.

 

Reference List

Böttcher L., Araújo N.A.M., Nagler J., Mendes J.F.F., Helbing D., Herrmann H.J., 2016, ‘Gender gap in the ERASMUS mobility program’, PLoS ONE, vol. 11, no. 2, viewed 20 July 2018, <http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0149514>

Dickmann, F. 2016, ‘Beyond uniformity – a world of opportunity’ Res Forum.

IEE 2017, Open Doors Report 2017, IEE, viewed 20 July 2018, <https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors/Data/US-Study-Abroad/Student-Profile>

National Center for Education Statistics 2016, ‘Total undergraduate fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control and level of institution: Selected years, 1970 through 2026’, NCES, viewed 20 July 2018, <https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_303.70.asp>

Patel, D., 2017, ‘7 surprising traits that make millennials excellent employees’, Entrepreneur, viewed 20 July 2018, <https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/306860>

Pricewaterhouse Coopers 2015, Developing Female Leaders, Author, PwC.

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

Relocate Global 2016, ‘Gender diversity in global mobility – research’, Relocate Global, 27 October 2016, viewed 20 July 2018, <https://www.relocatemagazine.com/articles/gender-diversity-in-global-mobility-research>

Shortland, S., 2014, ‘Career Development International’, Bradford, vol. 19, no. 5, pp. 572-594.

Strauss V. 2015, ‘Why do more US women study abroad than men?’, The Washington Post, viewed 20 July 2018, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/10/09/why-do-more-u-s-women-study-abroad-than-men/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6323e2923032>

Terra Dotta 2015, ‘Tackling the gender gap in study abroad, Terra Dotta, viewed 20 July 2018, <http://www.terradotta.com/articles/article-Tackling-The-Gender-Gap-In-Study-Abroad-3-15.pdf>

The Guardian 2017, ‘University gender gap at record high as 30,000 more women accepted’, The Guardian, 1 July 2017, viewed 20 July 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/aug/28/university-gender-gap-at-record-high-as-30000-more-women-accepted>

Universities Australia 2016, ‘More Australian students see the value of study abroad’, Universities Australia, 8 June 2016, viewed 20 July 2018, <https://www.universitiesaustralia.edu.au/Media-and-Events/media-releases/More-Australian-students-see-the-value-of-study-abroad#.W1ljv9IzY2x>

University Rankings 2018, ‘Gender balance male-female ratios’, University Rankings, viewed 20 July 2018, <http://www.universityrankings.com.au/gender-balance-ratio.html>

Varma, A., Russell, L., 2016, ‘Women and expatriate assignments: exploring the role of perceived organizational support’, Employee Relations, vol. 38 no. 2, pp. 200-223, https://doi.org/10.1108/ER-02-2015-0019

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