How to improve gender diversity in the expat workplace?

June 06, 2019
Women make up about half of the world’s population however; they only generate about 37 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) globally. When it comes to female expatriates, the statistics are starker. Research by Mercer showed only 14 percent of the expatriate workforce is female. When it comes to closing the gender gap in global mobility there is a lot international Human Resource professionals can do.
First and foremost, gender equality is the right thing to do. However, there is also a business case for improved gender diversity. Workplaces with good gender balance benefit from:
Research by the Expatriate Management Forum showed 73% of respondents had difficulty finding candidates with the right skills and experience. In OECD countries, women now outnumber men when it comes to holding Bachelors and Masters degrees. If your company is not specifically targeting women for expat roles, you may well be missing out on an obvious pool of talent.
International experience is increasingly valued by employers so more and more employees want the opportunity to live and work abroad. Your company is more likely to attract and retain top talent if you offer equal opportunity for both male and female employees to work abroad.
Most importantly, improved gender diversity has been shown to reduce expat failure and lead to more assignment success. This is particularly true if relationship building and cultural sensitivity is a core part of the role. Research by Korn Ferry Hay Group showed most women have better soft skills. They are more likely to be successful in expat roles where these skills are important.
Unfortunately, there is not always an easy answer for LGBTI employees working as expats in countries that are hostile to them. Organisations have a duty of care to employees and if sexual orientation puts their welfare at risk then careful consideration must take place before they are sent on international assignment.
There are many ways Global Human Resource Managers can work to improve gender diversity in an expat workplace:
One of the difficulties for HR when it comes to overcoming gender equality is a lack of understanding amongst senior management. This is usually because of unconscious bias. To overcome this, use company data to map gender diversity amongst expats across the organisation. If the gender gap is significant, survey existing female employees to understand the issues preventing them from applying for international assignments. Present this information to the management team along with evidence based research on the benefits of expat gender parity.

In many multinational companies, there are several challenges facing potential female assignees including:

  • Lack of role models

Potential female expats are twice as likely to turn down an expat position because they have no role models to emulate.

  • Perceived inequalities

There can be a perception among women that they must put in more effort to impress, than a male expatriate in the same role.

  • Lack of transparency around the selection process

Women can discount themselves entirely because they do not meet all the skills listed in the job description.

Ensure your department has clear procedures in place to increase awareness of your global mobility program amongst female employees. Have briefings on the opportunities available abroad, specifically for female employees. Make the briefing a safe space for potential candidates to ask any questions they have. Encourage queries about the selection process and any concerns they may have about expat life.

A report by PwC showed most women preferred to gain international experience early in their career. If this is reflected in your business, consider offering the opportunity to work abroad, for short periods, to high performing juniors. This will also start the process of developing role models for others to follow.

Provide unconscious bias training to all management, to ensure it is not impacting the expat selection process. Consider asking all employees whether they would be interested in working abroad. A database of interested parties will allow you and your management team make more informed decisions on suitable candidates for a role.

There is a long way to go before we see as many women as men in expat roles. However, there is a lot that International Human Resource Managers can do to encourage more females to enhance their careers by working abroad.

When planning expat assignments, ensure all your employees are protected with international health insurance while they are working abroad.