The Rise of Women in Global Mobility – Seven Obstacles and Six Solutions
Rise of Women

Picture this scenario: a leading multinational company needs to select somebody with the right skills to establish their first overseas division and they have two equally strong candidates. Alice just got married and, in their best intentions but without consulting her, leadership decides that she would not like to go on assignment as she is likely to be starting a family. The opportunity is therefore offered to George. 

What do Alice and George think twelve months later? 

Alice and her husband wanted to get the wedding out of the way so that she could pursue her dream of going on an international assignment. She was shocked about not even being consulted. But it all worked out for her in the end: she is now working overseas for one of their competitors and is very happy in her role.

For George, the company’s decision really came at the worst time. His wife and he were about to tell their families about their first baby. But he still said “yes” to the opportunity and eventually convinced her wife to try that out. However, it was very tough on her and she ended up being sick through the whole pregnancy. When the baby was born, she had no support network. This situation also impacted his performance which was much lower than back home. For this reason, the company decided to bring him back. 

I bet it’s not the first time you are faced with this scenario. Wrong assumptions and stereotypes are in fact one of the reasons for which women continue to be highly under-represented within the expat population

However, there are a few positive sides that make the rise of women in Global Mobility look somewhat brighter than some time ago. Take policy and awareness for example. In 2011, only 12% of CEOs saw poor retention of female talent as a key business challenge, and only 11% were planning policy changes to attract and retain more female workers (PwC’s Annual Global CEO Survey). Yet, just a few years later, 64% of CEOs worldwide confirm that they finally have a diversity strategy and 13% of them are planning to adopt one over the next 12 months (PwC, 2016a).

 

What’s to Celebrate?

When we look at data, it’s important to break it down. If it’s true that the percentage of expat women swings between  just 14%  and 25% (Mercer, 2017; PwC, 2016a; PwC, 2016b), we cannot bypass the significant differences between regions and industry sectors. For example, while expat women in the energy and high tech sectors are only 8-11%, the percentage for the life science sector is 23%. Companies in the service and retail sectors also generally tend to have a higher percentage of women expats. 

Other research (Communicaid, 2017) provides an even more optimistic picture, showing us how the proportion of expat women grew slowly but steadily from 1980s onwards.          

And always on the bright side, among those employees who have already had an international experience, 47% of the female and 53% of the male respondents confirmed they had completed more than one international assignment. In addition, based on their most recent international experience, 84% of women said that they would repeat a similar experience, and 93% state that they would recommend an international assignment to a colleague (PwC, 2016a). 

Last but not least, 73% of women working in Financial Services believe that they have equal opportunities than men to undertake international assignments at their current workplace (PwC, 2016b). This percentage is encouraging in comparison with the 50% of women taking part in the previous year’s millennial survey who believe that promotion is biased towards men (PwC, 2015).

Even with something to celebrate, we shall keep in mind that these variations don’t change the overall conclusions: we are still decades away from seeing this percentage rising to 50%. Predictions show that, in the best case scenario, this will be reached only around 2050 (Mercer, 2017) 

How can you benefit from having a more expat women ? 

1 – You will Facilitate Better Assignment Selection with a Broader Talent Pool 

One of the main mobility cost drivers is related to the limited choice of candidates ready for assignments. By inviting more women to the club, you create more options for your company and indirectly to control costs better. The more good candidates you have, the better will your selection be and the higher the chances that you don’t have to sell an incredibly overpriced assignment package.

2 – You will Record a Higher Assignment Success Rate

The When Women Thrive report highlights that women are perceived to have unique skills that are particularly relevant for expatriation, including flexibility and adaptability (39% vs. 20% who say men have those strengths); inclusive team management (43% vs. 20%); and emotional intelligence (24% vs. 5%.). In short, women tend to build cultural bridges better than men and work in a more sustainable manner.

3 – You will not only Attract, but also Retain Talent

Female demand for international mobility has never been higher than now, with 71% of female millennials wanting to work outside their home country during their careers. Also, 64% of all women interviewed said that international opportunities were critical in attracting them as well as keeping them with an employer (PwC, 2016).

If you want to be successful in attracting and retaining female employees, you need to have a talent brand with international experience as a core element of your employee talent proposition. 

Are you not yet convinced that more expat women provide a huge added value to your company?  In our previous post, we give other proofs of how a more diverse expat population makes you a more profitable and valuable company. 

Seven Obstacles to the Rise of Women in Global Mobility

1 – Strategy

Like the majority of international organizations, you too might be currently challenged with a lack of alignment between Diversity & Inclusion and Global Mobility. This is a crucial issue that you should be working to solve as soon as possible. When goals and data are discussed with Senior Management, Global Mobility Managers need to have a seat at the table. 

2 – Policy

Many Global Mobility policies have originally been developed for male assignees with children and a “trailing” spouse. It’s 2020 and this needs to change. Make sure your policy addresses the issues of expat women and new types of families – single parents for example (the vast majority of them being female), or same-sex couples.

3 – Nomination Process

As we mentioned in our previous post as well, too many times there is still a lack of transparency over who is assigned and why. Companies often don’t have a clear view of those employees who would be willing to be internationally mobile. And like in Alice’s and George’s stories, unconscious bias still plays a considerable (yet invisible) role in the selection of the right candidates. Because of the prevalence of stereotypes that associate women with family, female employees are usually not  even asked even if they would be willing to consider. 

I’ve been there personally as well. 

And if you want to take a small journey into the world of the unconsciously biased HR world, have a look at this insightful article on gender decoding. 

4 –  Non-Diverse Host Locations 

This is probably not such a big issue (apart from a few very critical war zones and dangerous locations). The issue, instead, is the assumption that expat women won’t be accepted because of the fixed gender roles men and women have in the host location. As a matter of fact, expat women in India have automatically a higher status than local women. And in some Muslim cultures, as long as you wear a ring implying that you are married, you can be seen as highly respectable and you will be treated accordingly. 

5 – Representation

While Global Mobility Managers are often female, women don’t benefit from the same representation rate at the upper levels. This means that Senior Leaders and Executives in Global Mobility are mainly men. As a consequence, there is an issue of lack of awareness at Senior Management level, and this is especially true in traditionally conservative countries.

6 – Lack of Visible Assignment Opportunities for Women

65% of female employees (PwC, 2016a) are still unhappy with the little transparency of their companies over the availability of opportunities for overseas assignments. 

It’s time that you make opportunities readily accessible to all, including underrepresented talent groups!

7  –  Lack of Human Touch 

The lack of Human Touch and/or previous bad Expat Experiences might stop women from actively seeking opportunities for international exposure.

In fact, teams are often too busy focusing on the many operational aspects of the mobility program and fail to design a human-centric Global Mobility program for their expat population. 

If you haven’t started yet, do it now. Talk openly about diversity in your policies and encourage internal discussion on this topic. Communicate about role models and success stories.

Six Potential Solutions  for a More Inclusive and Diverse Global Mobility Program 

1- Set Clear Diversity and Inclusion Goals  for Global Mobility

Global Mobility and Diversity and Inclusion teams need to set realistic yet challenging goals for increasing the number of female assignees AND female department heads in Global Mobility. According to KPMG (2018), only 41% of the organizations surveyed had clear D&I objectives in place. Without specific targets nothing will change! 

2 –  Allow for More Flexibility by Having Different Assignment Types 

New types of assignments and flexibility are making things easier for women and employees with family responsibilities to go on assignment. As I reiterate in The Global Mobility Workbook, Global Mobility should not systematically be synonymous with traditional Long-Term Assignment. In fact, even if those remain the most preferred assignment type by both genders, women favour 6-to-12 months’ assignments more than men (37% vs 29%). The same can be said for assignments shorter than three months (10% vs 5%) as well as frequent business travels (36% vs 32%) (PwC, 2016a).

3 – Identify and Understand What the Real Barriers are 

Do you actually know what the real barriers to inclusive mobility are for your workforce and organizations? If you’ve never measured in which way your current policies hinder women’s mobility, it’s time you act NOW.  Stop simply assuming the barriers to gender inclusiveness and understand better where the actual issues lay. That’s why I recommend intercultural training for all Global Mobility Managers.

4 – Give More Visibility to Female Role Models

While 68% of men feel that there are enough male role models of successful expats in their organization, only 48% of women feel the same about female role models (PwC, 2016b). This impacts negatively the wider female talent pool of companies and their Global Mobility programs.  If you want to help fill the gap, take active measures to drive awareness of the positive experiences of successful expat women within your organizations. 

At page 24 of this PwC report you can read a short and inspiring testimonial of a Tax Partner and Expat Woman role model. 

5 – Use More Gender-inclusive Language 

Too often Global Mobility policies still refer to their globally mobile workforce with masculine pronouns. At the same time, they would make you assume that Expat or “trailing” Spouses should be female. Well, it’s 2020 and this is not anymore the case. If you want to make your program more inclusive, start from how you address your talent. The UN has recently published new very helpful guidelines that can definitely be useful for your policies too.

6 – Foster a Supportive and Inclusive Culture

It is absolutely critical for your company to move away from the restrictive gender stigmas of the past if you wish to unlock your full global workforce potential. Your ultimate challenge is to create a culture where all your employees are on board with diversity and recognize how valuable this is.

Our message is clear: Global Mobility strategies that do not fully include women will simply not deliver to their full potential.

How we can Help you

If it all makes sense to you but you don’t know where to start from, this is why we’re here. Here are four ideas on how we can help you.

  1. We deconstruct your expat nomination process and review your existing policies for inclusiveness.
  2. We improve the language you use in communication to make them gender-inclusive and we also help you sprinkle them with “Human Touch”.
  3. We conduct an analysis of your Expat Experience and identify unveiled barriers for female expats and their spouses.
  4. We facilitate transition workshops with expat women in the host country, and prepare female candidates for potential expat assignments through our exclusive 1:1 Executive coaching program RockMe!

PS: I want to tell you two more things.

Are you looking for a board member mandate in Switzerland? Have a look at VRMandat and Stitungsratsmandat and check how they can support you.

Look up the above links also if you’re trying to expand your board of directors.

Resources

Read the insights of the 4th edition of the Advance and HSG Gender Intelligence Report.

https://stiftungsratsmandat.com/de/

https://www.vrmandat.com/en/

https://dorothydalton.com/2016/03/11/gender-de-coding-and-job-adverts/

https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20160929-where-are-all-the-expat-women 

http://www.internationalhradviser.com/storage/downloads/Gender%20Bias%20in%20Global%20Mobility%20Developing%20Female%20Leaders%20PwC.pdf 

https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/global-hr/pages/women-expatriate-workforce.aspx 

References 

KPMG. (2018). Inclusion and Diversity in Global Mobility. KPMG. https://assets.kpmg//content/dam/kpmg/xx/pdf/2018/06/global-mobility-inclusion-and-diversity-how-gms-can-help-move-the-needle.pdf

Meier, O. (2019). The path to diversity. Mercer. https://mobilityexchange.mercer.com/insights/article/the-path-to-diversity-women-on-assignment

PwC. (2015). Female millennials in financial services: Strategies for a new era of talent. PwC. https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/financial-services/publications/assets/pwc-female-millennial-report-v2.pdf

PwC. (2016a). Modern Mobility: Moving women with purpose. PwC. 

https://www.pwc.com/gr/en/publications/assets/modern-mobility-moving-women-with-purpose.pdf

PwC. (2016b). Women of the world: Aligning gender diversity and international mobility in financial services. Pwc.

https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/industries/financial-services/assets/women-of-the-world.pdf 

This is a good example of Women in Global Mobility
Riikka Virtanen Schwitter speaking during the EY “Future of Mobility” event (February 2020)

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3 thoughts on “The Rise of Women in Global Mobility – Seven Obstacles and Six Solutions

  1. Hi, happy to join the Global Mobility Club to be updated about datas, research, articles, events, and so on. And to connect for possible collaboration about Global Mobility. I regularly work in the field of expats training and intercultural competence develepment, and as Intercultural Business Lecture and one of the topic of my course is gender differences in career growth and global mobility opportunity.

    • Hello Maura, I believe we have met at SIETAR. We will send you a subscribe email. Please confirm. Cheers Angie

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