Gender equality: is the tide turning for female expats?

9 October 2018

Many attempts have been made in recent years to address the gender gap in global assignments. Despite calls (including our own) to take steps to encourage more female expats, progress has been slow.

Research from 2017 still showed that only one in five expats were women. More worryingly, the same research suggested that only 22% of companies were actively trying to change that figure.

Expatriation: is it different for girls?

The principle of equality is widely acknowledged in most cultures, but female expats face a series of different challenges to their male counterparts. The key obstacles are widely seen as:

  • Unconscious gender bias – where women are not even considered for global assignments or where management assumes women to be less interested. Recent research from the RES Forum showed that while 80% of men believe the selection process to be 'gender neutral,' only 44% of women agree. It seems that women struggle to position themselves as suitable candidates and selection processes work against them.
  • Work/life balance – where dual career opportunities are lacking, and men are more reluctant to play the “trailing spouse” role. The same RES Forum research records that 71% of men were accompanied by wives/partners, compared to only 26% of female expats. It seems women are more willing to support the international career of their husband than vice versa. This suggests that, to achieve gender equality, we need to change the attitudes of husbands and wives as much as those of the selection panels.
  • Lack of female role models – there are too few women in leadership positions. The presence of previously successful female assignees clearly helps to address gender bias by simply proving that they can ‘do the job’. But female pioneers also help by inspiring and empowering other women – an important effect that has been proven in some very interesting psychological trials.

The question is how can we as a society and as a work culture help women to face these challenges? How can we change the current realities to make the opportunities and difficulties equal for everybody? That’s where companies can (and should) really weigh in.

Raising the profile of the problem

Outside the world of global mobility, gender inequality issues have been big news in 2018. High-profile organizations have had to admit to embarrassing instances of pay inequality, while the spotlight has also been turned on gender inequality this year by the #metoo campaign.

These headlines are not directly linked to global mobility, but by raising the general issue of inequality, they have helped to ensure gender equality in global mobility remains at the top of the agenda.

This has put pressure on organizations around the world to take a long, hard look at the often male-dominated leadership structures in place. The selection – or at least the equal consideration – of female expats should, however, remain an active focal point for those who want to lead by example.

Who is leading the way?

Credit should go to companies such as Accenture, Dell EMC, and the Boston Consulting Group, who made up the top 3 in a survey to rate US companies for their attitude towards gender equality. Boston came out best, with 91% of female employees saying they thought they were treated equally to men.

These forward-thinking attitudes appear to be bearing fruit. According to a study by Communicaid, the last three decades have seen the number of female expats increase by a factor of five. Not only this, many countries are taking steps to address the issue.

Is this a global issue?

InterNations conducted research to list the “10 best countries for female expats”, based on 7,000 working women of 152 different nationalities. While the research is predicated on earnings and career prospects, it includes some interesting insights into what makes a host country more welcoming to expat females.

Mexico topped this list, but it was notable that Bahrain was placed fourth. This suggests that even the traditionally male-dominated cultures of the Gulf States appear to be softening. The Ministry of Labour and Social Development in Saudi Arabia was also delighted to announce that the number of women in the workplace has increased by 130% over the last year – a welcome statistic but it is clear that many cultures still have a long way to go.

A more welcoming world for expat women?

Whether these encouraging signs are a foretaste of what’s to come, and whether it will have an impact in the world of global mobility remains to be seen. But it definitely feels like there is more pressure than ever on global mobility departments to change their candidate selection policies and increase the number of female expats.

We may yet look back on 2018 as the year that the tide really began to turn.

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