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On the move: The business case for female assignees

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Sending more women on international assignments is a win-win situation many companies are unaware of. Laura Fransen explores the facts, figures and first steps for gender-inclusive mobility programmes.

Human resource issues are notoriously hard to quantify. They often involve feelings, experiences, intentions, perceptions and other human faculties that are hard to put a number on.

Workplace equality isn’t one of those issues. The number of women in any given workplace is a simple, measurable fact; as is the positive contribution they make to business.

The same goes for mobility assignments. Companies can easily measure how many women are participating in mobility assignments, and how that relates to the overall amount of women on the payroll. If the percentages don’t add up, you know there’s a problem.

While the solution may not be clear cut, the problem is. In 2014, women represented 46.8% of the labour force in Hong Kong, while the global average was 39.6%. In contrast, only 20% of global assignees are women, Jo Hayes, director of pipeline initiatives at The Women’s Foundation, points out referring to The RES Forum Annual Report 2016 and PwC’s 2012 and 2016 global mobility reports

Despite these numbers, companies don’t seem to be too concerned. “We are seeing a real disconnect in many companies, most of whom haven’t applied a gender lens to their mobility assignments,” Hayes says.

“Only 22% of companies have aligned their mobility and diversity strategies with talent management and senior leadership development which means that women have fewer opportunities for global assignments.”

Only 22% of companies have aligned their mobility and diversity strategies with talent management and senior leadership development.

Jo Hayes, director of pipeline initiatives at The Women’s Foundation

She adds that even women who do make it out on international assignments, then don’t see the same longer term benefits such as promotions, compensation increases or repeat assignments as men when they return. Something she puts down to unconscious bias, glass ceilings, and women going to popular rather than priority destinations.

Business case

While gender equality is an issue close to Hayes’ heart, increasing the number of women in mobility assignments isn’t just a matter of principle. It’s a strategy that makes perfect business sense.

“Global mobility assignments help organisations address talent shortages, close skill gaps and accelerate growth,” Hayes summarises.

Moreover, according to the 2016 global mobility survey by Santa Fe, 90% of business leaders say international assignments are critical to develop successful future leaders. Additionally, 77% of leaders believe international mobility plays an increasing role in the success of their organisations, PwC’s 2016 global mobility report shows.

When you consider international assignments are crucial to the development of successful future leaders, the lack of women partaking in those assignments becomes an apparent business problem. After all, companies with the highest representation of women on their boards and senior leadership teams on average outperform those with the lowest, Rebecca Holden, general manager of global services and international HR for Telstra, points out.

“Being more gender inclusive in offering mobility within the organisation helps empower female employees to build their career by experiencing a broader range of roles. In the long run this drives better gender diversity in the organisation, especially at more senior levels,” she explains.


When it comes to tackling the issue of women and mobility, the best strategy is no different to addressing any other business problem. Before devising a plan of action, make sure you know what you’re up against.

“We know from our research that women face several gender-specific inhibitors that prevent them from taking on global assignments,” Hayes says.

“These range from short lead times and family considerations such as childcare and caring for elderly dependants, to unconscious bias on the part of senior management and global mobility managers making assumptions about women based on their age, seniority and family situation.”

When it comes to tackling the issue of women and mobility, the best strategy is no different to addressing any other business problem.

Holden adds that women could also be more reluctant to put themselves forward for a mobility assignment if they don’t have all the capabilities and experiences the role requires.

“This mirrors the general trend we see in women having less confidence than men to put themselves forward for promotion opportunities if they feel they ‘only’ fit the majority of the requirements for a role and not all,” she says.

At an organisational level, the issue is perpetuated mostly through a lack of awareness. Hayes points out that by failing to look at their global mobility programmes through a gender lens most fail to build in flexible and gender-inclusive approaches.

Future leaders

At Telstra, women currently make up 28% of the total employee population. Like many companies in the telecom sector, the balance of male-female employees leaves something to be desired. But, with that in mind, the company works hard to ensure those women who do become part of the company get every opportunity to develop, grow and become future leaders. Part of those efforts are reflected in Telstra’s mobility programme.

“Within the global enterprise and services business unit, which includes all of our international team, we currently have 74 people participating in mobility assignments, of which 22 (or 30%) are women,” Holden reveals.

“A slightly higher percentage than our total employee population.”

Tanya Huang is one of the women at Telstra who benefited from the company’s aim to include more women in its mobility programmes. Together with three other female graduate trainees from the Australian business, she was offered the opportunity to join the international team in Hong Kong for a six-month rotation.

“Although our operations are heavily IT and technology focused, I was impressed to see the high ratio of women in the workplace, especially amongst the international graduates,” Huang says.

“Telstra is a proud advocate of diversity and inclusion, and I am pleased to say that I was able to experience the support that they provide to women to thrive in the international work space.”

First steps

The very first step to increasing the amount of female assignees within your company is to make sure your female employees are aware they have the option.

When mobility opportunities arise, ensure they are made known to your entire talent pool, and not just to those individuals who have proactively expressed an interest before, or the ones you’ve pegged as being adventurous.

“When there are mobility opportunities, we should eliminate unconscious bias and remove gender out of the equation so as to ensure that female employees are presented with equal opportunities for mobility,” Holden argues.

When there are mobility opportunities, we should eliminate unconscious bias and remove gender out of the equation

Rebecca Holden, general manager of global services and international HR for Telstra

She adds this starts with the whole workplace, where a gender-neutral stance should be adopted to foster a more level playing field.

“Having gender balance as a core business strategy is key to enabling women to achieve their full potential,” Hayes agrees, adding that diversity and inclusion strategies, talent management, leadership development and global mobility programmes should all be aligned through their common goal at an organisational level.

Apart from getting the message out there, flexibility and small adjustments could go a long way towards including women.

Based on its research, The Women’s Foundation suggests organisations include global mobility assignments as part of a long-term development plan for high potential women. Additionally, simply increasing the lead times can encourage more women to apply, as it allows time to address concerns about potential family responsibilities.

Finally, perhaps one of the most powerful tools to encourage more women to take up mobility assignments is to have other women show them how it’s done.

“It’s important to showcase mobility success stories,” Hayes insists. “If you can see it, you can be it.”

Photo / iStock

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