What will it take to shift intractably low female participation rates in international assignments? Adjusting how we talk about it may help.

Let’s get the easy stuff out the way. The big percentages. Today, women’s participation rates in international assignments have stagnated at a offensively low 20% at best.

Now we’ve got the hand wringing out of the way, what on earth is going on? It’s a no-brainer that women are absolutely vital for making global business work. We already know the debunked theories about women being accepted by ‘anti-female leadership’ companies overseas and women’s work-family concerns. Women want to be globally mobile and leverage this towards leadership roles. So what are organisations doing? Well, it’s hard to say because when you get down to brass tacks, no-one’s giving much away.

Business journals and the broader media have focussed attention on narrow cohorts of women who’ve achieved international placements against a broader backdrop of systemic ‘glass wall’ bias. This risks perpetuating an ‘against the odds’ or equally hard-to-quantify ‘best thing I ever did’ stereotype of women, with limited practical effect in helping stakeholders build up and normalise female participation rates in international assignments.

Exemplifying the former is a ‘Forbes Women’ profile featuring Singapore-based Australian Felicity Menzies who applied, as a young finance employee, for an international trainee posting. Once there, she kept up the pressure to relocate to London and move from an operational to a highly competitive revenue generation role. Back in Australia, she leveraged revenue-generating experience and cultural skills to gain an executive role position.

Illustrating the latter is a PWC promotional video of female executives discussing the career and life benefits of international assignments across PWC’s global operations.

What do we really know about how companies manage global mobility?

There are all kinds of ways that organisations provide ongoing support, career upskilling and career ‘scaffolding’. They are often informal and ad hoc. In male-dominated company cultures that favour ‘old boy’ informal networking and ‘mini-me’ candidate selection, this approach favours male candidates.

In global talent management, this culture opens opportunities for international assignments and support to men and it leaves women behind in the global mobility and career development stakes.  Women must often (over 35%, according to one survey) initiate their own search although paradoxically, they have been found to be more successful than men in managing the adjustments to cultural behaviours that are critical today to global management.

HR talent management functions, including global mobility, are recognised as important for fulfilling business goals. One report has identified that between 2012 and 2014, recognition that global mobility programs are important to business goals jumped from 25% to 38%.

Yet outside academia and white paper reporting, how companies are managing global mobility remains largely obscure. If you do a search engine scan on ‘women in international assignments’ or ‘women global mobility’, you will find plenty of articles that cite findings from EY, PWC or McKinsey but case studies on individual companies and people are surprisingly thin on the ground. Where these exist, you have to read between the lines about what companies actually do to manage the global mobility part of talent and career management.

Talking about international assignments as career development tasks

International assignments are recognised as a career ‘developmental task’ but still portrayed as an adjunct to career development rather than strategic functions of talent management. How global talent management strategy and functions are helping or hindering women remains largely unexplored.

Nowadays companies have access to a rich range of data to make sense of gaps in global mobility programs but companies are underutilising these  resources and the data sees little public airing. Organisational landscapes in global talent management remain fuzzy, although professional discussion fora reveal hints of companies’ varying approaches, from ad-hoc selection of ‘suitable’ candidates to formal processes.

Media reports pair individual success stories with smatterings of figures on gender percentages and company ‘should do’ lists. It’s not surprising. It’s easier than spending time analysing the numbers on what companies are actually doing. With such discourse vagueness, it’s no surprise the issue still flies under companies’ radars and female participation in international assignments still eludes us. In effect, we’re still loitering around the introductions instead of getting down to business.

Improving International Assignment planning

Global mobility programs and talent manage need to be formalised: Cartus 2014

The Menzies and PWC examples highlight self-initiative and talent. Unexamined is how their companies managed that talent. As far as we can see, Menzies followed a traineeship pathway, negotiating with a tough but receptive management in a broader business environment that was unreceptive to women. The PWC executives benefited from a robust global talent management program. In both cases, however, the role of systemic support is muted. This is unfortunately. Narratives like this should be exemplars of global talent management but their effectiveness is neutralised before the reality of persistently low female participation.

Reporters and marketers could help map the landscape about women in international assignments by shifting to more robust data-driven, differently framed narrative insights. Individual profiles should drill down into nuances of what is and is not working for women in global mobility programs. Organisational profiles should describe steps companies have taken to formalise global talent management, link this with company values and culture and monitor, evaluate and adjust their programs over time.

This may help shift thinking and support companies to action on low female participation rates.

For more reading

Arup V & Russell L 2016,’Women and expatriate assignments’, Employee Relations, Vol. 38 no. 2 pp. 200-223

Cartus 2014, Global Mobility Policy and Practices, Cartus Corporation

EY 2013, Tomorrow’s Workforce – data driving mobility: 2015-16 Global Mobility Effectiveness Survey, EYGM Limited

EY 2013 Your Talent in Motion: Global Mobility Effectiveness Survey, EYGM Limited

Linked HR, 2016, 7August,  International Assignment [Online forum]

Medland, D 2016, Today’s Gender Reality In Statistics, Or Making Leadership Attractive To Women, Forbes 7 March 2016

PWC 2016, Moving Women with Purpose: female role models, promotional video, PWC, viewed 10 August 2016, YouTube

Sojo V 2015, Managers hire a ‘mini-me’: why women miss out on overseas assignments, The Conversation, 3 April 2015

Tulshiyan, R 2016, This Leader’s Global Assignment in Her 20s Catapulted Her into Roles Usually Reserved For Men, Forbes, 26 May 2016