Women and international stretch assignments

by Mar 28, 2023

International stretch assignments

The low participation of women in the talent pool for international stretch assignments risks endangering gender equality at senior levels.


Jach Welch famously commented that executives of the future would need some sort of international experience to advance their careers. It was hardly surprising that many executives then clamoured for an international assignment to expand their skills and capabilities beyond their current location. This also included the added value of cross-cultural exposure.

Is global mobility discriminatory?

In many companies, going on international assignments and having extensive overseas experience is a precondition to reaching senior managerial levels. Organisations are expecting their executives to be able to work effectively in global markets, but global mobility is designed very much for male executives, despite women being hungry for the opportunity. The low participation of women in this talent pool for international stretch assignments risks endangering gender equality at senior levels and the need to make global mobility more gender incluisve is becoming increasingly important.

The timing for these stretch assignmentst tend to start  when employees are in their early thirties, at the middle management level, and then carries on for another decade, maybe longer. These individuals will have a couple of national roles under their belts and will have probably been identified as having high potential. At that point in their careers the executives either have no children or their kids are young.

international stretch assignments


Gender imbalance

International assignments have been set up for men, and their wives/partners have usually been willing to relocate. I have been a trailing spouse myself, not once, but twice (moves, not husbands.) I was fortunte I had a portable career, way before it was ever called that.

Globally, women make up 50% of the global workforce, but +/-33% of managers, 26% of senior managers, and only 20% of executives. If international experience is vital to breaking through the glass ceiling, greater efforts must be made to accommodate women’s needs at lower levels.

Women also make up only 20% of international assignments according to research from Mercer.  This an upward trend compared to 14% in 2017 and 11% in 2015,  although there are significant differences between regions and industry sectors.

Global Mobility: International Assignments, Expatriation, Repatriation, Expat Partners

I have been involved with many ex-pat placements over the years in my capacity as a head hunter and the mantra was “Happy wife, happy life.” We knew that the exec couldn’t settle if the family wasn’t happy, which would have a huge cost to the company if they had to be repatriated. The top three factors that can cause an assignment to fail to remain; are difficulty adjusting to the host country (38%), poor candidate selection (37%), and spouse or partner’s unhappiness (34%).

But is that changing?


Barriers for women on international stretch assignments

It is clear that women can face additional challenges to men around securing assignments in some geographies, owing to a mix of cultural issues and gender biases in different locations and even at HQ.  The individual can also have specific challenges.

1. Benevolent sexism

Women are frequently excluded from international assignments by paternalistic bias so that they are never  even put forward for a role in the first place. “She just got married.” or “She’s got kids ” and so on.

These are all gender-based assumptions, that may not be real. It’s important to ask.

Khady Gaye HR Manager with United Airlines is one woman who has bucked the curve, and has been in Chicago for over two years living apart from her husband and teenage children in Belgium. She says “Putting yourself first is acknowledging, accepting and appreciating the opportunities. The collective decision has been key in my move to the US. I do not feel I left my family behind. I never been so connected with my family. It is about having a non-traditional approach, the agility to embrace change and obstacles”

2. Cultural differences

Women may face cultural differences that can impact their ability to successfully complete international stretch assignments. This will depend on the function and location, but even historically tough cultures for women such as Saudi Arabia report an opening up and a relaxation of certain protocols.

It is also becoming easier in other geographies where local customs previously made it difficult for women to build relationships. Perhaps times are changing.


international stretch assignments

3. Safety concerns

Women may also face safety issues in certain locations.  In some countries, women may be at higher risk for gender violence or harassment, making it difficult for them to feel safe and secure while working in those areas.

An HR Manager in a B2B company in India shared that there are certain locations she would never send a female engineer due to concerns around her personal security. That is definitely something authorities need to tackle.


4. Domestic responsibilities

Family issues are often the main barriers to mobility for expatriates and this is even more the case for women. Ex-pat policies have been developed with male executives in mind who have a “trailing spouse” who will assume responsibility for childcare and home management.  The contracts do not always cover day-care support, (71% of companies don’t pay for daycare according to the results of Mercer’s Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices) which can make it difficult for single parents, the majority of which are women.

5. S.T.U.D.s

This means that the placement of women execs is clearly not as common as for men.  I came to learn the term S.T.U.Ds  Spouse Trailing Under Duress,  the men who relocated internationally to support their partners. That the trailing spouse is now increasingly a man, is also giving urgency to updating spousal support policies, while slowly changing mentalities.

Sophie Stevens Head of Programmes in the UK Foreign Office, shares her experience of an international assignment with her husband “In 2020 my husband and I moved to West Africa with our two young children for my job as a British diplomat. Despite the obvious challenges of moving to a very different context and culture, we had a lot of fun. We enjoyed a family-friendly lifestyle of a short commute, living in a gated community with other families, a swimming pool and space for the kids to run around, affordable childcare and a lively international community. 

She elaborated on the specific challenges: My husband had quit his job as a human rights lawyer in London and was taking a chance on finding work (or not) in a country he’d never been to. He was not able to find work while we were there which was the biggest challenge for him (it didn’t help that it was during the pandemic. By the end of our 2.5 years there his self-esteem had been impacted. Finding a project to keep himself busy – in his case writing a novel, and making some other male friendships outside of my work, kept him going. 

6. Lack of confidence

With all the negative messaging  some organisations indicate that women may feel daunted and do not put themselves forward.  Research from PWC suggests that this is not the case at all, revealing that “Female demand for mobility has never been higher with 71% of female millennials wanting to work outside of their home country.” They are simply not accepted.


Unconscious Bias Training is not an HR issue. It’s a business issue


Transferable skills

This raises another issue. The question of women who are penalised for not going on these international stretch assignments. At a recent workshop, a senior woman executive shared that every year her boss tells her she needs to work internationally to get ahead in her career. Every year she tells him it’s not possible.

Learn how to identify your transferable skills 

The key question is what skills does her boss think she will gain from this exposure ,and can she get that experience any other way? The need for international experience is another way of putting barriers in the way of women. Promotion opportunities should not be dependent on global mobility which is currently not gender inclusive. It’s important to establish if the skills can be gained in other ways via business trips, virtual assignments, short secondments and roles nearer to home.

Lack of gender inclusivity

Companies that fail to correct the gender imbalance of international stretch assignments is losing yet another opportunity to tap into the full range of talent in their workforce. By not exploring ways where female executives can gain those skills in other ways they are compunding the problems even further. Global mobility should be gender inclusive


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






Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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