By Olivier Meier, Mercer
It’s a Long Way to Parity
A paltry 14% – That’s the average percentage of women in the expatriate workforce globally, as reported in the 2017 edition of our Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices. This surprisingly low percentage – reminiscent of the mobility trends in the 1990s – is partly explained by the broad participation base of the survey, which encompasses all geographies and industries, including emerging economies and industry sectors with lower participation of women in the workforce. There are significant differences between regions and industry sectors. The figure is 10% for Asia Pacific but closer to 20% in the US. The energy and high tech sectors have some the lowest percentage of women in their expatriate workforce (ranging from 8 to 11%) while the percentage for the life science sector is 23%. Companies in the service and retail sectors also tend to have a higher percentage of women expatriates.
However, these variations don’t change the overall conclusion: none of the industry sectors comes close to 50%, and knowing that the percentage of expatriate women in some industries and in the most developed economies lingers in the 20 to 25% range brings little comfort. Progress is being made and some companies have successful diversity initiatives, but overall the participation of women in the expatriate workforce is increasing too slowly. The parity objective is a long way off. At the current pace, it might not be reached before 2050.
If You Think It’s Just about Global Mobility, Think Again
The impact of this absence of gender parity in the globally mobile workforce is cascading into all aspects of talent management, including leadership development and remuneration (pay equity).
In many companies, going on international assignment and having extensive international experience is a precondition to reach senior managerial levels. The low participation of women in the assignee talent pool puts a brake on gender equality at leadership level.
In fact, it’s precisely at the mid-management level that women are stopped in their career progression. Female representation declines as career level rises. Globally, women make up 40% of the average company’s workforce but 33% of managers, 26% of senior managers, and only 20% of executives (source: Mercer’s 2016 When Women Thrive report). Breaching the glass ceiling requires international experience and an international professional network that is difficult to acquire without international assignment experience.
Promoting gender parity is not enough. The focus should be on the roots of the problem: building an inclusive international mobile talent pool that allows women to develop the skills and networks to access better career opportunities.
Beyond the moral imperative, participation of the women in the expatriate workforce makes economic sense for companies. In a context of fierce global war for talent where specific managerial and technical skills are in short supply, ignoring the potential of such a significant part of the workforce is simply not an option.
Even at a more practical level, a broader talent pool facilitates assignment success and cost control: one of the main mobility cost drivers is not related to pay packages and policies as such but to the fact that companies often have a limited choice of candidates for assignments. Broadening the internationally mobile talent pool is a way to provide more options to companies and indirectly to control costs better.
Furthermore, the When Women Thrive report highlights that women are perceived to have unique skills that are particularly relevant for expatriation, including flexibility and adaptability (39% vs. 20% who say men have those strengths); inclusive team management (43% vs. 20%); and emotional intelligence (24% vs. 5%.)
Distinguishing Real Barriers to Mobility from Paper Tigers
Alleged barriers to international mobility include both real challenges and preconceptions. In many cases these barriers can be overcome through a mix of practical support, flexibility in policies, and communication.
Are some assignments or locations really not suitable for female assignees? As discussed in a previous article about diversity in non-diverse locations, diversity policies pioneered by companies in their headquarters can sometimes be disconnected from the reality in hardship locations. Distinguishing objective barriers to mobility from prejudices and issues that be mitigated through cultural training, facilitation, and practical support is therefore important.
Having support on the ground is helpful: mentors or an HR team that can reinforce the diversity message (focused on skills and benefits for the company as opposed to abstract principles). Providing cultural training can facilitate integration in the host location but it should not be restricted to expatriates. Management and colleagues in the host location should also be involved in the training. More generally, open communication with female candidates for expatriation should be encouraged to identify potentially issues on a case by case basis – overgeneralization should be avoided and nothing should be assumed.
Family issues are often the main barriers to mobility for expatriates and this is even more the case for women. Many family support policies have originally been developed for male assignees with children and a trailing spouse. These policies need to evolve to better address the issues of female expatriates and new types of families – single parents for example (the vast majority of them being female.)
A good example is day care support, which is not included in many policies (71% of companies don’t pay for day care according to the results of Mercer’s Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices). That the trailing spouse may increasingly be a man is also giving urgency to updating spouse support policies, while slowly changing mentalities.
Flexibility and adaptability can go a long way: Some organizations in the UAE that are exploring ways to increase the participation of local nationals and women in the workforce by sending them on assignments for developmental purposes. Although there is a cultural reluctance to send single women alone on assignments and the motivation among employees to leave the home country for an extended period of time is low, these organizations are developing short developmental assignments – the short duration of the assignment address some of the concerns about leaving the UAE for an extended period of time and the mobility policy stipulates that, upon request, a relative can accompany single women on assignments. This is a reminder that a degree of flexibility in policies might be required but that there are few absolute barriers to mobility.
It also shows that new types of assignments and flexibility are making things easier for women and employee with family responsibilities to go on assignment. Global mobility should not systematically be synonymous with traditional long-term expatriate assignment. Other forms of assignment commuting, extended business trips, and virtual assignments are opening doors for employee categories that were not previously considering international assignments for personal reasons.
The Inescapable Conclusion: It’s Time to Accelerate
The impact of the absence of international assignment experience in specific employee groups is underestimated by many companies. Fostering diversity and parity cannot be based on favoring one candidate over another candidate just because of gender. This would open the door to accusation of reverse discrimination and, in an international context, of cultural insensitivity. It should start with building up the international talent pipeline.
There is a strong business case for mobility and diversity teams to work together: real parity will be difficult to reach without greater participation from women in the expatriate workforce, and this greater participation can come from the combined actions of talent management teams and practical assistance from the global mobility teams.
Contact the author: Olivier Meier
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