Why women are under-represented in international roles and what can be done about it

“The world will never realise 100% of its goals if 50% of its people cannot realise their full potential. When we unleash the power of women, we can secure the future for all.”

Ban Ki Moon, Former UN Director General

Gender diversity is improving and that is to be celebrated but there is still a huge amount of work to be done with the World Economic Forum estimating that the gender gap will not be eliminated until 2095. According to the Pew Research Center in 2018 women made up at least 40% of the workforce in more than 80 countries surveyed, in the USA 75.8%. However, while progress is being made it appears to be slow going with women accounting for only 17% of corporate board positions and 12% executive committee members in the top 50 listed G 20 companies  and only just over 5% of CEO’s in the top Fortune 500 companies.

These statistics are reflected in the international arena where only 20 – 25% of international assignees are female. Admittedly, given that only 3% of assignees in the 1980’s were women progress has been made and this is to be celebrated. The challenge now though is that exposure to international experience is often seen as developmental and a prerequisite for leadership roles. If women are not given the opportunity to develop that international expertise then their route to senior management may be blocked and ultimately contribute to the perpetuation of low levels of female representation at CEO and Board level.

Going International

This article looks at the factors that prevent or discourage women from undertaking international roles, and makes suggestions for improving female participation in international roles?

Motivation and interest to go:

There seems to be a mixed picture about how motivated women are to undertake international assignments. The RES Forum research found that more than half of the companies surveyed said it would be difficult to find women willing to relocate internationally, with two fifths saying they found it difficult to motivate women to accept international positions. In contrast, BCG research found that 55% of women were willing to move abroad for their careers and PWC 2014 reported 69% wanted to work outside their home country. What are the reasons for this mix of experience, and how can companies better gauge the interest of their female employees in international positions?

Selection and recruitment process:

It seems that the way in which international positions are filled potentially discriminates against women. Many selection processes for international positions are informal and closed processes. Employees hear about vacancies on the grapevine or managers resort to ‘knee jerk’ selection processes whereby they select ‘Mini Me’s, or those who simply happen to be on ‘their’ radar. As the roles are not openly advertised or communicated employees, both male and female do not hear about the opportunity. This added to the fact that women are often reluctant or slow to self-promote means that they may be at a disadvantage – especially when informal decisions are made based on a management population that we know to already be numerically skewed towards the male gender.

Gender discrimination for roles:

Hearing about and applying for roles may be one challenge but it seems even when women do apply they may be discriminated against in the selection process. The BCG report found that of the males and females who wanted to relocate abroad only 30% of females found positions versus 40% of males. In literature cited by the RES Forum Report – 80% of men said the application process for international assignment was gender neutral whereas more than 50% of women did not agree there was a gender neutral selection process. Unconscious bias could impact the selection process from both men and women – making assumptions about the suitability, availability and capability of women for international roles given their age, marital status, number of children, fit for the role and/or location.

Family circumstances and partners:

The dual career challenge is a very real one for international assignment candidates of both gender and can be a determining factor for women whose partners refuse to leave their home-based career. Child care, though the responsibility of both parents, traditionally falls more to the women and this was demonstrated by the Women at Work Report which found that women were five and a half times more likely to do all or most of the household work. Ideally it would take negotiation and re-evaluation of roles and responsibilities to accommodate an international role and some women may not be able to see how to achieve this – concluding that there would be a negative impact on family life. They potentially therefore self-select themselves out of international opportunities.

Absence of gender appropriate support:

The support offered by organisations has traditionally been slanted towards the typical assignee who has been male. Policy and assignment design has been created with them and their families in mind and so perhaps has a natural and often unintended bias towards their needs. There has long been the expectation that the ‘female’ accompanying partner will support international relocation – interesting that as the tables turn that expectation of ‘support’ is now being challenged, perhaps another example of unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias training is not an HR issue. It’s a business issue

No role model:

As the majority of assignees have been male, there may not be many female leaders who have or are currently benefiting from international experience and are therefore able to operate as a role model or mentor for aspiring international leaders. In one study, female assignees had been mentored exclusively by male employees, perhaps sending a subconscious message to the female employees about who would be most suited to an international assignment.

A mentor could be just what you need to take your career to the next level. Find out more about our 3Plus Mentoring Services HERE.

Questionable career outcomes from international assignment.

Repatriation can be a challenging time for organisations and they often face challenges in terms of retention of former international assignees. While both genders may struggle, the RES forum found women tend to face more challenges and find that their career progression is slower in the first year after return. Longer term male assignees are promoted more quickly, achieve better performance ratings and see better growth in pay.

What can be done to achieve a better female representation in international roles?

Timing of international relocation opportunities: BCG suggests looking at when organisations send women abroad. Consider engaging women in international roles earlier in their careers when they are single and have no children. These experiences would give them a sense of the challenges and opportunities that arise with international relocation, demonstrate to them what is possible and help them to make better informed decisions later in their careers, and of course provide that all important international experience and global mindset early in their careers.

Selection and recruitment: Ensure that opportunities are advertised/communicated and encourage women to put themselves forward. Encourage management to talk to female employees about their aspirations including their desire for international work experience. Develop assignment pools of employees who would like to be considered for international roles. Ensure that selection methods are gender neutral and merit-based. Take time to consider the range of assumptions that may exist from both male and female perspectives about the appropriateness of international roles for women and work to guard against them in selection processes.

Enable: Women like to feel they are well prepared for a job role from the perspective of skills and knowledge. Provide pre-move education about the experience, the challenges, opportunities and potential of global mobility. Offer programmes to develop cultural agility and intelligence prior to international assignments and develop appropriate role related skills and knowledge. Encourage women to consider the domestic challenges of international relocation, including the division of family management tasks and their partners attitude to the professional and personal impact of international relocation. Offer careers advice to assist all potential assignees, both male and female, in making an informed relocation decision that is based on an understanding of the opportunities/challenges and what it will take to develop their career abroad and beyond

Share the experience: Look for appropriate mentors. People who have relocated internationally and are able to share their professional and personal experience with prospective assignees. Create a social learning platform where employees can ask questions and share information, insights and experience.

Flexibility: Look for flexible approaches to international roles. Does the role require a long- term assignment? Could the role be split into shorter project-based commuter assignments or long business trips? Could the employee work across two locations? Could the partner stay home and continue their career while the assignee works abroad with regular trips home? What about part- time roles and flexible working practices? Looking at the specific needs of the assignee from a professional and personal perspective may mean a more bespoke solution and support programme could be a more effective approach for all concerned.

Preparation and in country support: Ensure that there is in-situ support for the assignee to help with the practical aspects of settling in. Use country mentors to help the assignee develop local and company knowledge. Give time for the employee to settle and find their feet. Offer coaching support to help them work through the challenges of adjustment, cultural differences and role related issues. A recent Mercer report found that those who had a positive first month in their new role were more likely to be engaged, committed and high-performing two years later. It pays to support in the early days.

3Plus International can offer your company a range of Coaching and Mentoring solutions to ensure women in your company succeed at every step of their careers.


Originally posted in LinkedIn

Louise Wiles Contributor
THRIVING ABROAD supports organizations to improve assignment effectiveness and return on investment by supporting expatriate assignee's and families. Our book: Thriving Abroad: The Definitive Guide to Professional and Personal Relocation Success and the accompanying workbook, helps organizations support international assignee's and their families through the relocation process and beyond to the creation of a thriving and fulfilling life abroad.
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