2018 has been a landmark year for the diversity and inclusion agenda. The UK’s 11,000 largest employers published their first gender pay gap reports. Meanwhile, the campaign for ethnicity reporting gathers pace.
Female expatriates, productivity and performance
Professor emerita of London Metropolitan University, Dr Sue Shortland, opened the conversation with an overview of the research on diversity, inclusion and mobility to date. “It’s quite interesting if you look at gender and the research and figures on self-initiated expatriation,” continued Dr Shortland. “There is a much more equal balance between men and women compared to the corporate assignee world, where only 27 per cent of assignees are women. Why is there this gap? Clearly women are disadvantaged here in some way.”With the business and ethical case driving the D&I agenda, this scarcity of take-up among women in international assignment is double-edged. First, it is important given international experience is often route one to senior leadership roles. Second, studies suggest companies are missing out from a performance perspective.“Research shows that women on assignment are very successful as expatriates,” said Dr Shortland. “How do we define success? What the studies have shown is that women tend to outperform men. Research also shows expatriate women are preferred as co-workers. It also shows women adjust better. This is worldwide, not just in western societies. I guess from the diversity perspective, when you’re talking the business case argument, women are more successful on assignment, so what’s stopping them?”
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Challenging assumptions and unconscious bias
Networks, unconscious bias and relative power balances in families are among the familiar and all-too-real reasons there are fewer female assignees. Fellow panellist Andrea Piacentini, partner of the RES Forum – as well as offering insights into the motivations of older workers in his presentation – discussed these in his presentation “Unconscious bias through the lens of international assignments – an update”.Citing the RES Forum’s 2017 quarterly report, Dynamics of Differences: Diversity in Global Mobility, which updated its 2016 original research on this topic, Mr Piacentini noted that while research showed women aspire to work abroad, there is a need for more organisational support to make this happen. Reducing bias during selection, increasing women’s empowerment in the workplace through formalised mentoring, and addressing the assignment offer are among the routes to making this happen.In particular, the study found women are less likely to take the first steps to initiate an international assignment than men. Research suggests gender stereotypes and linear “male” career models may block opportunities for women.It also challenges the perception that women don’t want to go on assignment. In the sample of 155 employees from DAX-30-listed companies, about half of female respondents said that they would be interested in going abroad. Interestingly, only 38.5 per cent of male respondents responded as favourably. Together, the findings suggest a communication deficit between women, their managers and HR.Considered in the context of other research, particularly around the value of mentoring, networks, pay and performance, these findings open up possibilities for how global mobility and HR design and reward assignments. Offering another perspective on the idea of a communications deficit through the focus of pay and reward, Dr Shortland noted, “research shows the reward package itself is not necessarily as relevant for the female audience as they are for the male audience. Adding, “how our policies are structured and how attractive they are considered to be is a useful point to think about.”
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Critically, the RES Forum’s report finds that women could be put off asking for an international assignment because they don’t regard the selection as a gender-neutral process. Asked whether the selection procedure for international assignments is, in general, objective and purely based on job quality, 59 per cent of male respondents agreed, while only 38 per cent of women agreed to this statement. About 17 per cent of women thought that the main obstacle in the selection process was their gender, while only 3 per cent of men thought this.
Opportunity for all?
Another key perspective in the wider conversation around agility, creativity, diversity and inclusion – and the mismatch between policy, practice and reality – is around ethnicity. Here, studies suggest where women share a similar cultural heritage with the assignment destination, people tend to be treated and accepted more readily as a local person.For women, this has the added benefit of “on the whole being better treated the higher they are up the organisational hierarchy,” observed Dr Shortland. For employers, international HR and global mobility, Dr Shortland believes there is scope here to “consider the potential synergies in terms of this idea of greater cultural understanding, which means assignees work more effectively with people on the ground.”But what happens when difference is much less clearly signalled, such as for faith or sexual orientation, asked fellow panellist Michael Grover, senior global mobility consultant at Mercer. “A lot of the issues facing the LGBT community are very similar to the diversity strands,” said Mr Grover. “Candidate selection is probably the biggest barrier. It’s probably about cultural bias.“A lot of line managers might think if you are openly gay they are doing you a favour by not assigning you to Saudi Arabia or wherever. But actually, the big learning for all strands around diversity is to make opportunity and let people choose.”Relocate’s new Global Mobility Toolkit provides free information, practical advice and support for HR, global mobility managers and global teams operating overseas.Access hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online Directory ©2018. This article first appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of Relocate magazine, published by Profile Locations, Spray Hill, Hastings Road, Lamberhurst, Kent TN3 8JB. All rights reserved. This publication (or any part thereof) may not be reproduced in any form without the prior written permission of Profile Locations. Profile Locations accepts no liability for the accuracy of the contents or any opinions expressed herein.