The rise of female expats

29 May 2017

Are organisations finally putting their gender bias aside? There has been a gradual rise in the number of female employees posted overseas – and those who are leading the revolution may well be getting the best return on their investment.

According to research from Communicaid, the proportion of female employees being chosen for global assignments has increased steadily over the last decades. In 1980 only 5% of expats were female; in 2010, the proportion had risen to 25%.

Overcoming prejudice

It’s clear that the industry has a much more balanced and realistic attitude than it once did. Yet the spectre of gender bias still looms, and the same old comments are still sometimes heard (albeit at a whisper) by office watercoolers around the world:

  • It’s a man’s job
  • It’s disrespectful to their culture to send a woman
  • A woman wouldn’t want an assignment away from home
  • Wouldn’t it just be easier to send a man?

These comments are unhelpful not only because they are wrong in principle: those organisations that are most active in providing equal global assignment opportunities for male and female employees will be the ones with the greatest chance of attracting the best talent. Here are a few things you can do to help make that happen.

1. Address concerns before they are raised

There are often intense conversations around candidate selection, with all kinds of pros and cons – and with different opinions on the candidates. The issue of gender should of course be irrelevant, but real life often doesn’t work that way.

You can help remove these concerns by preparing in advance, especially if the assignment involves travel to places with different views on gender equality. Why shouldn’t you send a woman to do business in the Middle East? The answer is that local cultural attitudes towards the role of women have little to do with their ability to do the job and most businesses accept this. The assignee is there to do a job and the fact she is female is not viewed through the same cultural lens.  

2. Stress the benefits (diplomatically)

It is important to let colleagues – and the potential candidates – know of the research conducted into the qualities required of expats, and how female expats have been shown to demonstrate those qualities in abundance. Research from the Society for Human Resource Management states that female expats, amongst other qualities, have greater self-awareness and are better able to operate outside their comfort zone. In general, they are less confrontational and are more likely to adapt to a different culture or working practice in order to bring harmony to a team and a successful conclusion to a project.

However, be careful. Your job is to remove the gender bias – not reverse it. It is not an argument over which gender is best. Instead, you may want to focus on the task in hand, which is choosing the right candidate.

3. Prepare for local challenges

Myths abound on the subject of the role of women in different cultures. As explained earlier, this is not the problem some people believe it to be – but the best thing you can do to encourage female employees to put themselves forward for roles overseas is to do some of the ground work for them and make them aware of the precise cultural challenges they may face. 

4. Give them a female mentor

Try to make former assignees available to take on the role of mentor. Female employees will be encouraged to know that they are not the first, and that the role they are considering has previously been successfully filled by a female assignee. This idea of mentoring can also be extended to providing a network between female expats in different parts of the world, helping them to share their experiences with prospective assignees.   

Moving in the right direction

The gender gap is definitely closing. But the most effective companies – and the ones who will have the most success in fulfilling the objectives of their assignments and attracting the best female talent – will be the ones who take active steps to close the gap even further.

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