Making females mobile

Written by
Kate Fitzpatrick

14 Dec 2015

14 Dec 2015 • by Kate Fitzpatrick

The stats revealed

According to Mercer’s recently published Worldwide International Assignment Policies and Practices survey, only 15% of employees sent on international assignments on a global basis are female. While this represents a small but steady increase from 12% in 2013 and 9% in 2010, these figures clearly do not correlate with broader workforce participation ratios. As global mobility professionals, we need to understand why this may be the case, and ensure that the mobility programmes we design and manage are supportive of a diverse and gender-balanced talent pool. 

To begin, we first must consider the demographic of any given international assignee population. It is important to establish gender ratios not just in absolute terms, but by policy type (e.g. long term versus short term assignments), business case (e.g. technical specialists versus senior business leaders), home and host geographies and performance ratings. It is only by breaking the data down that trends or opportunities for intervention will present themselves. 

For example, an organisation may have an assignee population including 30% female employees, which on the surface looks twice as positive as the survey results indicate. But what does it tell you if none of the 30% are filling senior leadership positions? What if the 30% are clustered between a small number of locations, with many others not sending or receiving female assignees at all? What if the women were, on average, rated as higher performers than their male counterparts, even though they were fewer in number? By analysing even this small handful of data points, you will likely find areas for further exploration. 

Of course these findings cannot be examined in isolation, as the broader organisation, industry and social contexts must also be taken into account. HR and Talent colleagues can often provide insights to gender representation at the organisation and industry levels, including by role type or job grade. Government and other research statistics can also inform the discussion. European Commission figures, for example, show a nuanced picture of the overall employment rate for men and women: for those without children, 9.8% more men are in work than women, while the gender gap jumps up to 17.3% for highly skilled workers with children. (This latter category are arguably the demographic most likely to be mobile once skills and age are accounted for. Mercer’s research shows the average age bracket for long term international assignees is 35-55 years, i.e. the life stage during which caring responsibilities for dependent children and elderly relatives are at their peak). 

What can we do to improve female mobility?

It is clearly not the role of the global mobility function to solve systemic gender equality issues such as these, but there are practical things we can do to ensure mobility programmes do not inadvertently exclude potential candidates on the basis of gender. These include: 

  • Reviewing your assignee identification and selection and performance management processes for unconscious bias. Are all assignment opportunities advertised to enable any interested employee to put themselves forward? Are objective candidate assessment processes in place? 
  • Assessing the flexibility and family-friendliness of your global mobility policies. Do you have a range of policy types and/or benefits which can support different personal circumstances?
  • Validating expatriate compensation and benefit levels for gender equity. Are there any discrepancies once role and market adjustments are accounted for?
  • Promoting the benefits of international experience for development purposes to ensure a gender-balanced future leadership pipeline, but also encourage alternate ways of achieving similar outcomes (e.g. the use of short rather than long term assignments; managing cross-border teams).
  • Communicating success stories and encouraging female assignees to act as advocates for the programme and mentors for others both whilst on assignment, and after repatriation.  

Collaborating with colleagues from HR, talent acquisition, performance management, reward and benefits will help ensure your global mobility programme is optimised to support your male and female employees equally.