Gender and the Global-Mobility Gap

Recent PwC data sees seven out of 10 women expressing an interest in working outside their home countries, but also finds just one in four expatriates is female. Why does this gap (still) exist, and what can be done about closing it?

Monday, April 20, 2015
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The persistent and much-publicized pay gap remains the most obvious example of lingering gender inequality in the workplace. Some recent research, however, casts the spotlight on another issue that underscores the progress yet to be made: the lack of global mobility opportunities available to women.

This data comes courtesy of New York-based PwC's most recent Women in Work Index, which analyzed employment and pay data across 27 countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development-including the United States. While PwC's analysis finds seven out of 10 female employees expressing a desire to work outside their home countries, it also finds that just one in four expatriates is female.

"We've seen this [trend] for a long time," says Peter Clarke, a U.S. and global international assignment services leader at PwC.

Take Danbury, Conn.-based Cartus Corp.'s 2013 Trends in Relocation study, for example. The survey-which culled relocation statistics dating back to 2007-polled 142 international mobility managers, finding only 21 percent of international assignees were female. Mercer's Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices, meanwhile, put that number at just 12 percent in 2007, when Mercer surveyed 752 companies worldwide on trends in global mobility management.

Of course, this disparity dates back much further than eight years, notes Clarke. And, by and large, he sees the same long-standing, subtle-sometimes unconscious-gender bias still shaping many companies' international assignment selection process.  

For example, some organizations and/or managers may assume that a female employee wouldn't want to move to a location with a male-dominated culture, or wouldn't want to uproot her family, including the "trailing spouse" who would have to fit in and find a new job in a foreign city.

"Women may be more likely than men to have spouses who are unwilling to leave or suspend their own careers," says Steve Nurney, global mobility business leader for North America at New York-based Mercer. recent University of Minnesota study suggests other factors may also be at work. After analyzing Census Bureau data on jobs and gender, researcher Alan Benson found "the tendency for households to relocate for husbands' careers is better-explained by the segregation of women into geographically-dispersed occupations rather than by the direct prioritization of men's careers," according to his study, recently published in Demography.

Put more simply, women are more likely to enter professions that are conducive to working anywhere, while men tend to choose more geographically restricted fields, according to Benson, an assistant professor in the department of work and organizations in U of M's Carlson School of Management. This essentially translates to men feeling they have to seek expat opportunities if they want to advance professionally, which results in families typically moving for the sake of the husband's job, sometimes to the detriment of the wife's career.

Manha Yau, a Chicago-based international consultant with Towers Watson, has seen firsthand the types of challenges female expats face.

Yau has been an HR consultant for more than 20 years, specializing in multi-country issues. She also spent two years in Tokyo, advising multinational Towers Watson clients on Japan's HR policies and programs.

She left Chicago for Tokyo in 2006. And she had her share of concerns about the work environment she was about to enter.

"Japan is still seen as a very male-dominated place," says Yau. "And it did occur to me that, because I'm female, I might be asked to make tea for meetings, for example, as opposed to being treated as a professional."

Her husband's happiness-both personally and professionally-was certainly another consideration, and served as the subject of many conversations preceding the move.

"One of the first things I thought about [when offered the assignment] was what my husband would think about it," she says. "It honestly would have been a much easier decision if I were single, or if my spouse did not work."

While her husband ultimately opted to remain in Chicago, she quickly found her fears concerning the Japanese professional culture's views of women were largely unfounded, she says now.

"Whatever my concerns were, my [preconceptions] were totally not true," says Yau, noting that, if anything, "I was viewed as a foreigner first, not a female."

Upon her arrival in Japan, "I was not seen [by my colleagues there] as being any different. That was a big surprise to me."

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One key to her international assignment being successful-and a practice she advises clients to adopt-was the presence of a mentor both at home and abroad to address her concerns before and during her assignment, says Yau.

"I had a mentor in Chicago as well as in Japan," she says, noting that she also sought out and joined a networking group with other female expats in the country.

"It was interesting to work in an environment where I was [not only] the only female, but also the only foreigner. So it was really helpful being able to relate that experience with other female expats working in Japan."

Of course, finding these types of mentors within the organization may be difficult-which is part of the problem, says Clarke.

"Women early in their careers look at [their companies'] populations to see women who have been out on mobile assignments and come back to [receive] recognition for their work, and do not see sufficient numbers of women in those roles."

To create more role models for future generations of female expatriates to follow, employers and HR must "go out and tap high-performing females on the shoulder and say, 'You need to think about [getting] mobility experience, whether it's domestically or internationally,' " says Clarke.

HR must also use data to narrow the gap between male and female international assignees, he says.

"Hold a mirror up to your organization's international assignment [numbers], and look for any anomalies you're not comfortable with," he says. "And, when [many organizations] hold up that mirror, I think they'll find they're not comfortable."

While there's no denying the current figures leave plenty of room for improvement, Nurney sees reason for optimism on this front.

"While female expatriates remain severely outnumbered, we've observed many of our multinational clients integrating their talent management, diversity and global mobility programs, and this is likely to result in a further-perhaps accelerated-increase in the number of women and minority expatriates," says Nurney.

Further, international experience is become more widely recognized as "a necessary stepping stone in career progression," he says. "As more and more employers expect their leaders to exhibit a global mind-set, we expect women to be given more opportunity to work outside of their home country."

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