The Expat Gender Gap

A new survey finds just 21 percent of international assignees are female. While the study also found few women expressing strong interest in global relocation, experts say HR can help female business leaders identify international opportunities and determine if the circumstances are right for taking the assignment.

By Mark McGraw

The good news from recent Cartus Corp. research is that nearly half of mobility managers anticipate the number of international transferees within their companies will go up this year. The not-as-promising finding is that an overwhelming majority - nearly 80 percent -- of these international assignees will once again be men, a number that Cartus has seen remain consistent throughout the last seven years.

In its 2013 Trends in Global Relocation study, the Danbury, Conn.-based provider of global mobility and workforce development services found 48 percent of 142 international mobility managers saying they expect their company's international relocation assignment activity to increase this year compared to 2012. Another 40 percent of respondents said they expect international assignment levels to remain the same, with just 12 percent anticipating international relocation activity to decrease in 2013.

The poll also found 82 percent of respondents saying their organizations believe such international assignments will have a positive impact on executives' careers; a percentage that has increased 30 points in four years, according to Cartus.

Indeed, a growing number of companies have acknowledged international assignments as not only valuable development opportunities for the transferees, but an effective retention technique for the organization as well, says Cindy Madden, director of consulting services with Cartus Corp.

"In addition to emerging market activity," says Madden, "companies are increasingly sending individuals to a variety of locations on developmental assignments. In order to retain key talent, leaders are recognizing that engaging and developing key talent will increase employee satisfaction and, in turn, retention rates."

The survey also finds, however, that just 21 percent of the transferees taking advantage of these international opportunities are female; marking the continuation of a lengthy trend, she says.

"The issues with international transfers have remained pretty constant over the years," says Madden. The findings of Cartus' Trends in Global Relocation study, which date back to 2007, seem to bear that out, with the percentage of women being sent on international assignments hovering around 20 percent throughout that time, reaching a low of 19 percent in 2010.

This low figure shouldn't simply be chalked up to employers passing women over for global relocation assignments, says Madden, noting that only 12 percent of women in this year's survey indicated a high interest in international opportunities, versus 39 percent of men.

"We're unsure whether the 21 percent number is due to women refusing transfers," she adds, "but the fact that an accompanying spouse or partner cannot obtain paid employment in most countries is likely a major factor," she says.

Historically, "the first hurdle to increased numbers of female expatriates has been selection bias," says William Sheridan, vice president of international human resources services at the New York office of The National Foreign Trade Council.

For example, he says, an organization may not offer a would-be female expatriate an international assignment based on the assumption that she isn't interested, is not a good candidate for a male-dominated location, may have a spouse or partner who can't find a job in the host location, or has a spouse or partner "who will be looked down upon as a 'trailing spouse' in a male-dominated host location."

There may also be "social challenges for single-status female expatriates in making connections outside the workplace; again -- in male-centric countries," he says.

At global HR consultancy Mercer, "we are finding a surprisingly low 'signal to noise' ratio" on the topic of female executives and global relocation, says Ed Hannibal, the Chicago-based global mobility practice leader for North America.

"What we do know is that, in many sectors, more and more women are holding leadership, managerial and high-potential roles," says Hannibal. "As employers review their talent pipelines for international needs, women are getting more of these international opportunities and are somewhat less likely to be only 'trailing spouses' when it comes to international assignments."

Employees are examining their own work and personal situations as well, with some new or expecting parents delaying international opportunities.

For example, says Hannibal, some employees who are starting families may opt for short-term assignments or decline an overseas assignment now, but volunteer for such a position when their children are older.

HR can be instrumental in aiding female executives within the organization in determining whether the time and circumstances are right for an assignment abroad, says Madden.

"The way that managers and HR leaders can help female executives determine whether an international assignment is right for them," she says, "is by helping them choose assignments that encourage them to develop their skills for higher level roles while allowing them to contribute in a collaborative team setting."

Ultimately, the onus is on HR to "start and continue the dialogue" for women to help identify expat opportunities, says Hannibal.

"I see more multinationals having a full workforce planning conversation when it comes to global mobility and talent planning," he says. "Best-practice sessions involve the business, HR talent and mobility leaders."

These internal teams are ongoing and formal, says Hannibal.

"Employers need to look critically at their talent needs and offer robust solutions such as short-term assignments, commuter scenarios and rotational postings. These shorter-term assignments may be a better fit not only for women generally, but also for all employees who find they cannot make a traditional long-term international assignment work at specific times in their personal lives."

HR must also provide "more clarity on the competency of a female assignee or candidate's professional skills and competencies," adds Sheridan.

"Home country management has to clearly indicate that the female candidate is equally or more qualified than male candidates," he says. "This has to be reinforced [from the] home country to host country leadership."

Aug 22, 2013
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