By Anne Rossier-Renaud and Olivier Meier, Mercer
Building a diverse workforce of international assignees is not only a question of fairness, it also leads to greater diversity at managerial levels and the broader perspective that comes with it. One of the barriers to diversity and gender parity in senior management is the lack of candidates with relevant experience, and a major roadblock to gaining this experience is missing out on international assignments. Having fewer opportunities for women and minorities to go an assignment inevitably leads to fewer women and minority candidates for top leadership roles.
It is with this understanding that we review the results of our 2020 Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices with mixed feelings. Despite clear signs of progress, we are still a long way from gender parity in the mobile workforce, and progress on the overall diversity question remains too slow.
The results are released in a context of uncertainty for the future of mobility. While it is too early to assess the full impact of the pandemic and subsequent economic crisis on diversity, fear is mounting that progress in gender parity and diversity could stall or even go in reverse. UN secretary general Antonio Guterres echoes these concerns when he says that "The pandemic is exposing and exacerbating the considerable hurdles women face in achieving their rights and fulfilling their potential." While he is referring to the situation of women in general, his chilling statement is highly relevant for mobile female talent and to assignees from minority groups. The crisis is disrupting international assignments as well as work practices, and some assignees, often from the same minority groups, are more vulnerable than others.
Steady but slow and patchy progress in talent mobility diversity
Close to 30% of companies reported that gender diversity in their mobility program has improved over the last two years. While the number of female international assignees is still much lower than that of male peers, we see a slow but steady upward trend. Five years ago, the results indicated that female assignees constituted a paltry 11% of the global assignee population. Mercer’s 2020 Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices shows a notable increase: females now constitute 20% of all international assignees and 21% of the long-term ones. There are significant differences by regions and industries. Retail, life sciences, and services continue to outperform tech, energy, and manufacturing. Companies with the highest average number of female assignees are in life sciences, consumer goods, and financial and non-financial services industries (more than 30%), the lowest in transportation equipment and durable goods manufacturing (10%).
On the broader diversity question, progress is less certain: only 12% of participants have undertaken initiatives to promote and facilitate mobility opportunities for minority employee groups (older/younger workers, LGBT employees, ethnic/national minorities, or assignees with physical disabilities). At many companies these initiatives are focused on integrating younger assignees. These results reflect the fact that inclusion issues related to groups such as LGBT and ethnic minorities are tackled by diversity and inclusion (D&I) rather than mobility teams. However, this does not mean that mobility teams should not get involved in D&I issues related to international moves. Mobility policies should be reviewed with diversity in mind, and mobility teams should foster the emergence of role models who could encourage more candidates from minority groups to volunteer for assignment.
Acting on diversity: awareness, flexibility, and family support
While a majority of companies express a commitment to address diversity issues, the implementation of practical solutions remains limited. Only slightly more than half of companies are taking measures to achieve gender parity in their mobility programs. The three main measures consist of raising awareness of mobility opportunities (18%), increasing flexibility (15%), and making policies more family friendly (11%). For minority groups, initiatives mainly consist of introducing flexible terms and conditions for the groups in question.
Raising awareness involves communication, coaching, and mentoring. All too often, employees and their spouses are not aware of the support offered by the company. HR and management should talk openly about diversity in policies and encourage internal discussions on this topic. Communicating about diversity should leverage role models and success stories. Ultimately, raising awareness is about expanding the talent pool and building a more diverse talent pipeline.
Increasing flexibility means reviewing benefits and allowances with diversity in mind. The objective is not to change drastically existing policies but to ensure that they at least include measures relevant to female assignees and minorities such as day care or spouse support to facilitate global mobility of women. Alternatively, it can be about providing the flexibility to re-purpose existing allowances or lump sums to address the specific needs of employee groups.
Family support is about helping single parents and fostering spouse support but also assisting older assignees caring for elderly parents and adopting a broader definition of family that covers different lifestyle and personal choices.
The crisis: a risk for gender parity and diversity?
Could future changes in assignment patterns and potential cuts in the number of assignees affect the diversity of the workforce?
At a macroeconomic level, the crisis is disproportionately affecting industries and jobs where women or some minorities represent a significant part of the workforce. Automation and the strong performance of internet-based services during the crisis offers opportunities but also represent a challenge for employees groups over-represented in entry-level jobs.
Economic consequences will stack up over time and require constant monitoring of the impact of the economic crisis on employees and their families. Dual income families, single parents, employees who have to care for sick or elderly family members, and other specific groups might struggle financially during the crisis.
New forms of mobility including shorter assignments and moving jobs to people could open up new opportunities for employees who would normally not be able to go on international assignments. These new forms of mobility could help companies meet the cost saving, agility, and diversity imperatives. However, these benefits will not materialize without suitable training and support for the employees concerned and for management.
The rise of remote working during the crisis has allowed many organizations to maintain business continuity and employees to perform their jobs. Going forward, remote working and virtual assignments could allow employees to work from home or from a location of their choice. However, not all employees are equally prepared for remote working, and they don't all face the same challenges at home. They may require additional help or more flexibility in working arrangements.
Remote working could be detrimental to diversity and inclusion if it is not carefully managed. Employees working remotely can end up being outsiders because they do not master the unspoken codes of the group and are victims of misconceptions. Virtual meetings can amplify stereotypes based on appearance, gender, and accents. A camera does not convey body language and foster empathy in the same way as a real life meetings. Not all participants in virtual meetings have the same innate degree of assertiveness depending on their personality and experience with virtual tools. In the absence of training and preparation, the risk of falling by the wayside in the virtual world is significant.
More than ever, diversity and inclusion needs to remain on the radar. As companies reinvent themselves to thrive in the new normal, management and HR need to reflect on the impact of new ways of working on all employee groups. Mobility professionals need to contribute to this debate and work closely with D&I teams.