09 October 2017

More Women Needed! The Drive for Female Equality in International Assignments

Female Talent / Global Mobility / Globalization



Imagine this scenario: there is an exciting new role available in the international branch of your organization. There are two outstanding candidates for the role, Susan and Alan. Both have very similar qualifications and experiences and have glowing reports from peers and managers. Susan has recently got married, so without asking her, the job is offered to Alan. Susan has fallen victim to a problem facing many potential female assignees: some candidates are more equal than others. This situation, published by PwC is typical of the subtly of the institutional discrimination preventing female equality.

Global Mobility Is Not a Level Playing Field for Female Talent

Women are often excluded from senior roles because they lack international experience, and from all reports, international roles are much more likely to be offered to men.

The scenario is confirmed by the experience of real women:

“Discrimination is more subtle than salary and conditions…Being closed off from opportunities that would advance your career is most common. Something as simple as not having your name put forward to work with a customer because he ‘doesn’t like women’. The most difficult men to work with are those that believe information is power and deliberately keep you in the dark. The second most annoying are those that make ‘well-intentioned’ decisions about you. For example, ‘We didn’t ask you on that trip to Germany because we thought you wouldn’t want to leave the kids.’” Emma, IT Manager

The Federal Glass Ceiling Commission in the USA identified three types of barriers to the advancement of female talent and the achievement of female equality in the workplace:

  • Societal barriers
  • Internal structural barriers
  • Regulatory barriers
Why Global Mobility Needs to Help Shape an Organization's Talent
Why Global Mobility Needs to Help Shape an Organization's Talent

In Europe and North America there are many initiatives to promote gender diversity and equality, but particularly in the field of international assignments, we are a long way to succeeding. But what are the myths and realities behind these barriers?

Societal Barriers

The reality is that we are not as gender-equal as we think. In fact, research shows that millennials are more likely to agree that women are more responsible for housework and looking after the children than the previous generation.

Discrimination is more subtle than salary and conditions…Being closed off from opportunities that would advance your career is most common. Something as simple as not having your name put forward to work with a customer because he ‘doesn’t like women’.

These subtle assumptions are inflated when it comes to choosing a candidate for a big international assignment. Just as in the scenario quoted above, leaders often base their decision on an unconscious bias against the “homemaker.” If the decision-maker believes that a woman is more likely to spend time looking after the house and the children, then it would be cruel to send that woman on assignment, and more cost-effective for the company to send a man.

We know from neuroscience that we make a judgement about a person in a fraction of a second, which is too quick to consciously process the factors leading to that judgement, so it is a change we need to make in organisational culture. This will bring about results, by creating an atmosphere where women are valued for their professional identity, rather than being victims of subconscious assumptions.

Internal Structural Barriers to Female Equality

Many organisations assume that female talent is more likely to refuse an assignment. This is a myth. In fact, women, aware of the glass ceiling and the importance of international experience for career development, are more likely than men to accept an assignment. In fact, anecdotally, they are less likely to negotiate their package than men, because they already feel disadvantaged, so want to make themselves more professionally attractive for the assignment.

More and more assignments are aimed at professional development, and therefore are coming earlier in the career path. Millennials are more socially and geographically mobile than any generation before them, and as traditional family patterns are adapted to the 21st century, it is not only illegal and irrelevant to consider the potential family situation when selecting an assignee, it is archaic.

Further reading

There is also an assumption that for cultural reasons, there are some countries where a woman is just not able to work (e.g. Saudi Arabia or Nigeria). It is true to say that it is much less comfortable for a woman to work in Saudi Arabia due to the religious laws. However, the implication that an organization can make that decision on behalf of a woman assignee is problematic.

We have a duty of care to set out the risks (and there are just as many risks that a man will fall foul of the religious laws as a woman will) and let an informed adult make the decision. In fact, in business circles, women are treated as honoured guests, just as a man would be, and business can be conducted as normal.

Regulatory Barriers

Women only make up between 20% and 25% of international assignees. The exact proportion is hard to determine, and this is a symptom of the problem in creating a level playing field for women in international roles. Many European countries now require major organizations to report on gender diversity in senior roles, but the reporting does not extend to executives based in overseas offices.

According to the PwC report on gender diversity, 62% of UK companies do not track diversity statistics in global mobility. The same report suggests that 71% of women in international organisations would like to work overseas, and 41% would accept an assignment if offered, regardless of the package.

71% of women in international organisations would like to work overseas, and 41% would accept an assignment if offered, regardless of the package.

As companies are not tracking diversity, it is easy for this subtle gender bias to remain hidden. Global Mobility professionals know that many assignments bypass talent departments, with assignees selected by a manager or by their predecessor with very little policy intervention.

Addressing the Problem 

So how do we overcome the challenge of female equality and how do we increase the number of female assignees?


Firstly, we need to have a formal process of tracking and recording diversity. Companies and governments must be much more transparent about their numbers. We are in the information age, and recognise that data is power. The more we track the numbers of female assignees (and in fact, we should not stop at gender diversity – non-white assignees are also under-represented) the harder it becomes to fail to address the imbalance.


Secondly, HR and Talent Directors must remove the appointment loophole. Regardless of the urgency or seniority of an international vacancy, organisations must insist that the correct recruitment policy is followed. This will prevent the “like-for-like” replacement club dominating the best positions abroad.

We must encourage female assignees to be role models so that it is clear that assignments are for all, not just men. With top-down support, it will become clear that not only are women welcome to apply for international roles, but they are also expected to be sent on assignment as part of their career development. It needs to become normal, not the exception.


Thirdly, we need to train ourselves to get past the unconscious bias. Both men and women can be blamed for exaggerating a man’s competence and understating a woman’s availability for an assignment – in both cases; decisions are based on assumptions, presumptions, hearsay and speculation.

Unconscious bias must be addressed by training precisely because it is invisible. Our brains make billions of decisions every day without engaging our active cognitive processes, so we must train ourselves to be more aware of how and why we make some of these decisions.

A Global Talent Shortage 

In the case study that PWC used to illustrate the gender bias in global mobility, quoted above, there is a conclusion. Alan accepted the assignment and went abroad with his wife. Alan’s wife was very unhappy in the new country, and they decided to return home well before the end of the assignment. Susan, disillusioned by the lack of opportunity left the company for a competitor to take up an international position.

We know from many sources that there is a global shortage of talent, and in particular there is a shortage of people willing to accept international assignments. Ignoring and disadvantaging 50% of the workforce is not going to solve this talent shortage anytime soon. Female talent is a resource your organisation cannot afford to overlook and female equality should be the minimum target your organization should set.

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