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Levelling the playing field: Bridging the gender gap in employee mobility

Aditi Sharma Kalra explores the challenges companies have to overcome to represent a more diverse pool of relocated assignees, and how organisations such as Schneider Electric and Kantar are taking a holistic approach to this talent issue. - With inputs from Priya Sunil.

The 2003 movie Lost in Translation features Scarlett Johansson as the trailing spouse supporting her husband John (played by Giovanni Ribisi) as they move to the new and unfamiliar city of Tokyo.

While the rest of the story plays out unexpectedly, the basic premise isn’t something new to mobility professionals, who grapple to achieve successful mobility assignments in cases where family is involved – or in the case of this feature’s focus, struggle to find enough examples of male-trailing spouses willing to undergo relocation.

Indeed, a gender gap is pervasive throughout the professional world, and the expatriation and employee mobility functions are no different. A paltry 14% was the average percentage of women in the expatriate workforce globally, as reported in Mercer’s 2017 Worldwide Survey of International Assignment Policies and Practices.

By the Mercer author’s own admission, this surprisingly low percentage can be partly explained by the broad participation base of the survey, which encompasses all geographies and industries, including emerging economies and industry sectors with lower participation of women in the workforce.

Even so, these variations don’t change the overall conclusion: none of the industry sectors come close to 50%. In fact, the percentage of expatriate women in some industries, and in the most developed economies, lingers in the 20% to 25% range.

In this feature, we explore why employee mobility is failing to represent gender diversity, and what steps organisations are taking to correct this gap.

The business case for women on the move

There is plenty of literature available on the business case for diversity. In 2015, a report titled Diversity Matters: Adding Colours to Boards in APAC by Korn Ferry and the National University Singapore found that Singapore companies enjoy 2.4% more in return on equity if they have at least 10% of their boardroom represented by women. Just 10%, imagine if that number went up to 50%!

More research done by Deloitte in 2017 found that companies with inclusive talent practices in hiring, promotion, development, leadership and team management generate up to 30% higher revenue per employee and greater profitability than their competitors.

Or this: for profitable firms, a move from no female leaders to 30% representation is associated with a 15% increase in the net revenue margin, as established by a global survey of nearly 22,000 firms by Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Evidently, diversity is no longer about making a business case, but rather about taking affirmative action, committing to it with time and resources, and following through to ensure it sticks.

While it is good to know that we are in the best-performing league, I do not think we should be happy with 20% and we strive to grow this further.
- Rita-Marie Harvey, Vice President, Talent Acquisition & Mobility – International Region at Schneider Electric

Cases in point: Schneider Electric and Kantar

Global specialist in energy management Schneider Electric has taken a series of progressive steps around the mobility of talent and linking it to diversity and inclusion.

“We believe having teams made up of different nationalities, gender, generation, cultural and industry backgrounds strengthens teams and breeds innovation, creativity, engagement, collaboration and high performance,” says Rita-Marie Harvey, Vice President, Talent Acquisition & Mobility – International Region at Schneider Electric.

This belief is converted into action through a number of initiatives such as transparency on job openings for employee-led mobility or company-led mobility, complemented by time dedicated by leaders and HR teams to identifying development opportunities and grooming key talent within the talent management frameworks.

Schneider Electric APAC has about 200 international assignees, including long term, short term, project-based and permanent international transfers. In 2018 alone, the team managed more than 200 moves in and out of APAC, and within the APAC region.

As such, the international mobility policy works hand-in-hand with the talent strategy.

“Mobility is a strong leadership development lever for us, and we leverage our global hubs as an opportunity to attract and develop local and regional talent who can build global careers with Schneider Electric,” Harvey says.

Given this approach, in APAC, Schneider Electric has 20% female expatriates in the region, which brings it on par with some of the best-performing industries and countries per the 2017 Mercer report.

However, Harvey says: “While it is good to know that we are in the best-performing league, I do not think we should be happy with 20% and we strive to grow this further.”

Meanwhile, research firm Kantar takes a different approach to measuring (and in essence, labelling) its mobile workforce, for example, the company does not use the term “expatriate”.

Carolyn Milligan, Head of Global Mobility at Kantar, explains: “In addition, we support fully all of the mobile workforce via the COE, therefore including traditional secondments (both short and long term), moves that are managed as if permanent, or local to local from a contract point of view, and the complex regular commuters.”

For this reason, Kantar’s analysis on gender data captures a far higher target population, thus in the past five years, it has averaged a 40% female workforce in “mobility”, as defined in the company’s context (where gender data is available, as it is not compulsory for the team to be given the gender).

“I suspect the flexibility offered at Kantar, combined with the holistic support irrespective of the relocation tactic deployed, means we have broader visibility on who we are moving and therefore we see a higher percentage,” Milligan says.

It is more challenging for women to find the support of a trailing spouse who is willing to potentially put his career on the back-burner to accompany his wife on an international assignment.

Carry-on baggage: Overcoming the challenges of diversity in mobility

Featured above, we’ve seen cases of employers that are able to support their women staff as well as their mobile workforce to bridge the gap. Now let’s have a look at some of the challenges we need to continue to overcome to make further progress.

While men and women both often cite family commitments as deterrents to international mobility, Amarjit Kaur, Partner at law firm Withers KhattarWong, points out the disparity between the number of men and women being deployed on assignments stems from the fact that women are oftentimes the primary caregivers for children or the elderly in a family.

It is also more challenging for women to find the support of a trailing spouse who is willing to potentially put his career on the back-burner to accompany his wife on an international assignment.

She explains: “Economics play a role in this imbalance as it is usually the men who are in more senior roles and command higher salaries, such that the expectation is for their lower-earning (or non-earning) spouses to shelve their careers in support of their male spouse’s career advancement.”

Schneider Electric’s Harvey agrees to the point on family being cited as a barrier to mobility for both female and male employees – whether it is about considerations around an ageing parent or young children.

In response, Schneider Electric has designed and deployed a comprehensive mobility strategy which caters to employees at different stages of their career – from early career to more experienced employees.

“Our policies can range from short-term assignments – where the employee chooses not to bring the family, but rather make more frequent trips home – to longer-term assignments where the family relocates along with the employee,” she says.

Kantar’s Milligan highlights a similarly comprehensive approach.

“As the broader Kantar talent strategy is increasingly looking for the opportunity to grow strong female leadership and a diverse workforce, when managing careers either ‘in market’ or ‘internationally’; and this position is complemented by a relocation programme that is completely marital, gender, ethnicity, LGBT+ or religion neutral; we are able to see that our mobile workforce is broadly reflective of our overall workforce demographic.”

However, she acknowledges there are challenges, often external, such as geopolitical and locally cultural views.

This is why the company continues to navigate its duty of care in allowing employees to select/be selected for or de-select locations that they wish to continue their careers in; to equip them with facts; details about the new market; and local role models and support so they flourish on arrival and thrive in the role.

This is also aimed at providing comfort and clarity that if the move is not right for them at this time then it will not hinder their career or progress within the group.

Rounding off the conversation, Kaur clarifies that from an employment law perspective, there is no general anti-discrimination law for mobility.

“Employers should nonetheless endeavour to level the playing field between the genders when it comes to international assignments. Candidates should be selected on objective metrics and the willingness of the candidate to undertake the assignment.”

Photos / Provided

This feature appeared in Human Resources, Singapore, May edition. Read it here:hrsg_may19


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