Getting International Work Assignments: The Female Perspective

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Plane taking off to travel

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July 14, 2024 at 2:6PM UTC

Dream of working in Paris and waking up to fresh baguettes in the morning? Or perhaps Hong Kong is where you're hankering to live. There are so many attractions to working internationally, it's no wonder that a majority of millennial women (over 70% according to a 2015 PwC survey) aspire to work outside their home country during their career.  Not only do you get exposure to a different culture and country which enriches your life overall, but many employers view their international roles as part of the grooming process for future leaders.

So how do you go about getting one of these roles? The bad news is that there is a startling gap between this huge demand for global mobility and the numbers of women who actually work abroad. A recent PwC survey of approximately 4,000 professionals from 40 countries revealed that only 20% of the internationally mobile employees were female.

Why are women getting so few of these international roles? Part of the answer is that global talent mobility strategies at employers are often not synched up or paired with gender diversity strategies at a company. For example, while PwC observes that “60% of multinational firms are using mobility to develop their succession pipelines of future leaders, only 22% are actively trying to increase their levels of female mobility."

Moreover, gender bias and assumptions may be at play. The study points out that many employees (of both genders) believe that men and women have unequal opportunities to international assignments, and many assume women with children will not want to work abroad. The truth, however, is more complicated.

PricewaterhouseCoopers found that the percentage of men with children who didn’t want to relocate internationally for work (40%) was
almost identical to the number of women with children who didn’t want to relocate (41%).

So what’s an employer to do about all these millennial employees with a travel bug? Well, if parenthood makes it unlikely that future leaders will relocate, one possibility is to offer mobility positions and international assignments earlier in an employee’s career (i.e. before children and care-taking responsibilities come into the picture). This may not be very realistic if an employer simply doesn’t have a need — or think it's difficult to take a chance on putting a junior employee in an international role.

Thankfully, PwC helpfully identified two areas of focus that would help reduce the gender gap for international roles:

1. More transparency about overseas opportunities within the company.

his is an idea that’s close to our hearts since transparency is what we’re all about. If there's smoke, make sure it's clear that there's no fire. In other words, if there is a perception that women aren’t given equal consideration for plum international assignments, employers should more clearly communicate those opportunities are open to all! Employers can go a step further and even explicitly encourage women to apply.

2. Highlight the women that have done the international stint.

PwC has pointed out that more female role models with successful international experience would help. We have written about the importance of having role models, and believe it's important for women to "see people like them" doing the things they aspire to do. It's true in terms of having female leadership at a company and similarly true for women who've had international job experience.

Let's say you get through the application process -- and you're about to make the move. What should you expect in an international role, and particularly one in management?

This article by Ellen Sheng reveals one woman’s experience dealing with sexist behavior outside the United States. She describes what Catherine Chou, a senior manager at Salesforce experienced when starting a new team in Cost Rica as quite common in different parts of the world. As Chou said, “It was very hierarchical, but once [people knew my] title, it worked out.” After a few incidents where she was ignored or assumed to be support staff, she started introducing herself explicitly by title to let employees know she was the boss.

According to Melissa Lamson, an intercultural consultant who has worked with multinational clients, “For women working in a culture that’s more hierarchical, it’s important…to move away from more collaborative management styles.” She advises women to be aware of their leadership style and how it may have to adapt to a new environment.

Being psychologically prepared for different cultural norms is all part of the (ex-pat) package!


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