Research shows getting an overseas assignment is another glass ceiling for working women to break.
Research shows getting an overseas assignment is another glass ceiling for working women to break. Vladimir Jovanovic

Why women miss out on overseas assignments

INTERNATIONAL experience is crucial for attaining senior leadership roles in multinational organisations. Currently, only one in four outbound expatriates from Australia are women. This situation might be unintentionally limiting women in their career progression.

Despite the increasing focus on gender equality in the workplace over the last 10 years, progress in female participation in offshore work assignments has been slow. Data from international consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers for more than 10,000 workers assigned overseas from 2005 (see figure below) shows no discernible upward trend in the percentage of female expatriates.

Trends of representation of men and women in international assignments


PwC Australia’s expatriate tax client base for over 10,000 assignees.
PwC Australia’s expatriate tax client base for over 10,000 assignees. Author provided


Melbourne University's Centre for Ethical Leadership and PwC Australia joined forces to explore this issue in depth. We used data from interviews with HR leaders, online surveys, academic literature and PwC's expatriate tax client base. We found women's lower representation in international assignments was driven by gender bias.

Bias 'hotspots'

We identified two key sources of bias that hinder female representation in international assignments.

Assumptions about female candidates

Both home and host country managers appear to expect a lack of availability, suitability and willingness from women to take international assignments. These assumptions may result in women being overlooked before the selection process has even begun.

Interestingly, these assumptions do not stand up to scrutiny. Women are no less interested than men in international assignments. Also, 69% of female employees want to work outside their home country during their career, while 63% saw international experience as critical to furthering their career.

Lack of formality in international assignments management

The use of formal or structured candidate recruitment and selection in global mobility is surprisingly low. When we asked expats how they knew of their current international assignments, 35.6% of respondents (both male and female) said they initiated the opportunity themselves.

The second most common means of securing the international opportunity was through personal networks and informal communication (17.8%).

This closed and informal approach to candidate selection negatively impacts female candidates. Women in management are often denied information about policies, opportunities, contacts and social support. This limits women's ability to be "in the loop" about international assignment opportunities.

When there is a pressing need to fill an overseas role, managers will typically select someone on their immediate radar, and someone similar to them. Given the imbalance between males and females in both expatriate positions and leadership positions, this approach to candidate selection will perpetuate the gender imbalance via the selection of a "mini-me".

Similarly, lack of formality in support provided to expats means those who are more likely to negotiate, typically men, will get a much better deal.

Finally, when there is no definite process for repatriation, those with stronger informal social networks in the organisation are more likely to be taken care of. Interestingly, women are more likely to reject an international assignment because of fear the repatriation process might negatively impact their careers.

Some solutions

Work on governance

International assignments should no longer be isolated projects assigned in a hurry. It is crucial to formalise recruitment and selection processes. Organisations need to start openly advertising international assignments to all employees.

International assignments are a developmental task. They should be factored into the career plans of workers with high potential. Strategic human resources planning will allow organisations to identify with enough time what resources are needed in each specific location and select people accordingly based on competencies.

Timing is everything

Women are more likely to take up assignments earlier in their career, before the age of 40. Organisations should identify high performing females at junior levels, allocate short-term secondments to give them experience working overseas, and increase their likelihood of accepting a longer term, more strategic role later on.

Increase engagement

The more committed a female employee is to her employer, the more willing she will be to accept an international assignment. The opposite is true for men. Making accelerated development programs available to female employees early in their career can increase commitment, and improve both the quantity and quality of female assignees.

Focus on location, not duration

Many HR leaders hold the view that short-term secondments are more attractive to female employees, this might impact candidate selection.

The level of development in the host country, cultural differences, and political risk are of greater concern to female assignees than males. Working with candidates to identify suitable host locations will have a greater impact on female participation than focusing on short-term mobility.

Champion your role models and social networks

High profile, successful female leaders with international experience should be made available to play mentoring roles to potential and current female assignees.

A home country mentor can help manage unrealistic expectations, enhance organisational knowledge. A host country mentor can help navigate the new context and help the assignee develop a relevant network.

Tackle the dual-career issue

Our survey shows a higher percentage of spouses of female assignees work full-time in the host location than do spouses of male assignees (78.3 vs 51.1%).

Including spousal support (e.g. help to find jobs and learn the local language) as a core, non-negotiable benefit in assignment policy could be a first step. Fixing the gender pay gap could also give women more leverage when negotiating with their partners potential international assignments.

Focus on repatriation

Around 40% of repatriates leave their companies within the first year of returning. Given the current focus on the return on investment of global mobility, this problem needs to be addressed, irrespective of gender.

Planning repatriation at least 6 to 12 months prior to the return, organisations can mitigate this lack of stability and resultant flight risk.

Formal fixes required

Our research suggests many multinational organisations need an overhaul of their approach to global mobility in order to address unconscious bias in candidate recruitment and selection.

However, this will not be enough. Formalised mentoring, support for trailing spouses and repatriation processes are important if organisations want to use international assignments as developmental tasks for men and women.

Jonathan Dunlea, Partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, co-authored this article.

This article originally appeared at The Conversation

Victor Sojo is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Ethical Leadership at University of Melbourne.

Disclosure Statement
The Centre for Ethical Leadership (CEL) has received funding from ANZ, Westpac, SANTOS, and Corrs Chambers Westgarth to conduct research on gender equality at work. For the research reported in this article the CEL received funding from PwC Australia.