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Closing the gender gap for international assignments

Apr 14, 2015
Women in business across the world are being urged to ‘go global’ to help close the gender gap for expat workers.

Despite improvements in sexual equality in the modern era, statistics show the number of women working on foreign secondments for their company remains surprisingly low.

Numerous studies show that taking an international assignment is not only an adventure but also a way to enhance and fast-track your career; and the UK government has a well-publicised aim to see 25% female membership on boards of FT100 companies by the end of 2015.

Despite that, on average only 16% of people on international programmes for big corporations are women; and that figure has remained largely unchanged for 20 years, with companies not doing enough to break the 20% barrier according to Lisa Johnson, Crown World Mobility’s Global Practice Leader for Consulting Services, who is based in New York City.  “We have done a lot of research and what we’re finding is that across many industries, global companies with a wider range of headquarter locations are now investing heavily in strategies to put this right.”

Lisa said that their aim is to recruit and retain women in their organisations, especially for senior management positions. These companies see it as a business imperative that has a positive impact on their bottom line – and they are realising that barriers to assignment opportunities for women need to be addressed. “So this is a fantastic time for women to grasp the opportunity, and for organisations to do likewise. Being on an international assignment can be a career-enhancing and life-enhancing experience and there is no longer any reason for women to miss out.”

Jan Gregory, a global account executive at Crown World Mobility is a prime example of how accepting an international assignment can change your career – and change your life.

Jan, currently based in Basel, Switzerland, worked for HSBC for 10 years but saw her life completely change direction when she accepted a post to leave England to work abroad with the bank in Malaysia.

“It was a big step for me but I’ll never regret it,” she said. “I have experienced so much since then. I loved my time in Malaysia and it gave me a whole new level of confidence. Then after five years I decided I wanted to take control and move into global mobility - and I never looked back. I’ve since worked in Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and now Basel.  It’s not easy to leave a settled role with a big bank, and if I hadn’t gone abroad to work I don’t think I would ever have done it;  I’d have worked for the same company all my life. But I feel very positive about how things turned out.”

It doesn’t surprise Jan that so few women take on an international move; but she has a very clear message for anyone considering a similar opportunity. “I’d say just do it – take the plunge! It’s important to know yourself and what you want from the experience, it’s certainly not for everyone. But it’s a wonderful opportunity. It helps your career and helps you grow.”

Jan said that there are probably a lot of reasons why not enough women take on foreign assignments.  “When I was starting it wasn’t really encouraged or even talked about as an option. But that is certainly changing now. International schemes in days gone by pretty much expected you to give up your whole life for work if you moved abroad with the company. The opportunity was offered to people with no ties, who didn’t mind throwing themselves into work and forgetting about family and relationships. It was a work fast, live fast environment.  A lot of women didn’t want that.”

But Jan explained that things are different now and a lot more care is taken to ensure people can take their whole lives with them. “It’s still hard for many people of course; but the important thing is that women should have the option and feel they can take it if they want it. I’d love to see more women on international programmes and I think companies are very aware now that they need to do more to encourage it.”

Lisa Johnson said that some of the ways that companies are encouraging more women to accept an international assignment include augmenting the typical benefits offered to employees moving abroad so that they give more support to an accompanying partner, or provide paid time off around the transition to get the family settled. “It takes creative solutions to identify the traditional barriers to women accepting an assignment and make changes,” she said.

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