Expat women in leadership: encouraging mixed gender leadership

January 17, 2019
As an international human resource manager (IHRM) part of your role is likely to be finding and placing suitable candidates in roles abroad that will help them grow and develop. However, research shows there is a significant gender gap when it comes to expatriates, less than 20% of the world’s 50 million expatriates are estimated to be women.
Gender diversity and equality within international business is not only an ethical move, it also benefits the bottom line. Businesses with more women in leadership show increased productivity, improved decision making and higher employee retention, leading to a more stable workforce and often increased profits.

Risk aversion and family are two often cited reasons why women are under represented on international assignment however these are not always the driving force. Reports show that women are not always approached or encouraged to apply for international leadership roles in the same way a male colleague might be, on the assumption they won’t be interested. This often-unconscious bias doesn’t reflect reality with BCG’s Women on the Move report showing that while 55% of women would be willing to move abroad for a job, only 30% had done so.

As an IHRM, if all the applications for an expatriate assignment are from men, it can seem like a significant challenge to increase female representation at leadership level abroad. But there are things your organisation can do to show their commitment to gender diversity including:

Although many women may be willing to move for a role, they may not be provided with the opportunity in the same way as their male counterparts. From a HR perspective, is there more can be done to ensure  no assumptions are being made and that those encouraged to apply for a foreign assignment are chosen purely on merit?
Research by BCG showed women are more willing to travel for work earlier in their career but this willingness abates as they get older. The same happens with men, but the trajectory is not as sharp. If your business can focus on women as soon as they join your organisation, there is a better chance they will accept an opportunity to work abroad. However, as sending an employee on expat assignment is a significant investment, ensure there is a process in place to identify the most likely leaders who will perform best in an expat role.
If your business has been sending employees abroad for several years but you want to increase the number of women taking part, conduct a survey with those currently on international assignment or who have worked abroad previously. Use this valuable primary research to identify the positives and negatives about working abroad for your organisation. This data can inform future policy to ensure it is tailored to meet the unique needs of female employees.
Although many HR departments track diversity of all kinds within their company, it is unusual to find businesses that have goals when it comes to gender diversity. It is difficult to make progress without a goal in mind. Once you have set a target identify what might be holding women back from applying for or being selected for expatriate roles and develop strategies to rectify this. It might be a case of rolling out mentoring or training programmes to improve success rates or it could be something completely unique to the industry you work in.
We all hold some form of unconscious bias. It is formed by the human tendency to categorise the world around us to make sense of it. Those who undertake unconscious bias training are provided with the tools necessary to identify it and put procedures in place to overcome it. Unconscious bias training is likely to benefit your entire organisation but it may also help management understand more about the challenges women face when it comes to expat roles.

There is no doubt that pre-departure training improves the success rate of all expatriates however the specific needs of women should also be addressed. If the assignee is moving to a region that may be more challenging for female employees, ensure they receive extra support they may need on the ground.

There is a lot that your organisation can do to encourage more women to work abroad so you can see the economic benefits a mixed gender leadership provides in your business.

Ensure all your expat employees have access to the international health insurance they need when they are working on assignment abroad.