Female Leadership Pipeline Fueled By Early-Career International Assignments

By Kathy Gurchiek May 24, 2017
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This is the third in a five-part series of articles about training and developing employees. This story examines how employers can position more high-potential female employees for international assignments, which can lead to promotion and higher pay.

Overseas assignments can bolster a career by helping to develop leadership skills and expand knowledge of a company's operations in a global business environment.

In fact, such assignments are the best predictor for promotion and higher pay, according to a 2015 Mercer study.

But although many women are willing to move abroad for their company, only a relatively small percentage are given the opportunity, according to research from BCG's Women on the Move: Shaping Leaders Through Overseas Posting released in May. The global management consulting group, headquartered in Boston with offices in 48 countries, took a fresh look at its findings from a 2014 survey it conducted with 203,756 people in 189 countries. About half of the respondents were women.

Among the women surveyed, 55 percent said they are willing to move abroad for a job assignment; among that number, 44 percent were women in relationships and with children.

However, less than 30 percent of those willing to take such an assignment were given the opportunity;

Among the men surveyed, less than 40 percent had that opportunity. 


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"Don't make assumptions" about your female employees' willingness or ability to move, said Katie Abouzahr, lead researcher for the May 3 BCG survey report, Women on the Move: Shaping Leaders Through Overseas Postings.

She noted that some assumptions are a "misguided but well-intentioned desire not to burden women with additional challenges," especially if they have families.

"The data tell us that people make that assumption about women. If they were having that conversation [with them], they would know women would be keen" for the opportunity for overseas postings.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing International Assignments]

Abouzahr recommended that organizations approach international assignments in the same systematic, analytical way they approach any promotion decision. She suggested the following steps to position more high-potential female employees for international assignments: 

Invest in women early in their careers. 

Women starting out in their careers are more willing than their older cohorts to take an international assignment, with interest dropping around age 36, BCG found. Traditionally, international assignments have been given to employees in their 30s, 40s and 50s, but this is when women typically are having and rearing children.

Interest in international assignments is highest among single women with no children, less so if the woman is single with children or is in a relationship but has no children, BCG found. Men also are less willing to move as they get older, but their interest does not decline as much as women as they get older.

One global nonprofit that BCG surveyed follows a policy of sending all high-potential recruits on international placements as one of their first assignments, according to Abouzahr.

"This means that they have international experience 'under their belt' and are armed with the learnings and insights from those placements as soon as they begin climbing the career ladder," Abouzahr told SHRM Online in a follow-up e-mail. "It also means that they have completed significant international assignments—which are typically in developing markets—before they enter the years in which they may wish to become parents."

She pointed to two other organizations that wait until their female employees have received their first promotion, or are identified and placed on a list of promising candidates, before giving them international experience.

This approach, she said, "ensures that the significant investments around relocation and placement abroad are appropriately spent." It also may have a side benefit of putting young women who are part of a dual-career couple on an equal footing with their partner, Abouzahr said.

Make sure that lists of candidates for international assignments include a balanced number of men and women. 

All applications for these assignments should be considered in a structured way and based on merit to minimize any bias, the researchers noted. Additionally, organizations should not assume that someone who declined such a position in the past would refuse future assignments.

Researchers also point out that some employees may hesitate to relocate to geographic locations considered a safety risk. In such cases, a short-term, trial placement may help clear up preconceptions "and increase the potential pool of applications" for those assignments.

Offer logistical support for all employees who are taking an international post.

Women typically want details about what the international assignment will entail, according to Abouzahr, who noted that "women are less willing to 'wing it.' They want to understand what the assignment looks like before they apply."

Before accepting her current assignment to Philadelphia, the London-based Abouzahr said she wanted to know about the schools her children would attend and what her commute would entail.

"It made my [decision] to relocate to Philly easier because I could imagine what my logistics would look like."

One suggestion in the report is for employers to arrange for employees who are in the early stages of their careers to take international postings together, providing "a ready-made peer support group that may alleviate some of the concerns about international assignments, particularly to countries perceived as high-risk locations."

Develop a communication strategy. 

Describe international assignments in ways that women might find most compelling, such as the opportunity to learn a new language. Organizations may also want to offer an early-return option, provide online discussion boards or hold town-hall meetings about the international experience. HR, colleagues who've taken international postings or a mentor can also answer questions and address the benefits of the assignment.

Create opportunities for those who cannot relocate abroad. 

An international posting is most likely to lead to a promotion and higher pay, according to a 2014 Mercer presentation on measuring the value of these assignments.

However, "there's going to be a bunch of people who cannot move abroad for a whole host of reasons, but may be in your talent pipeline and have skills you want to develop," Abouzahr said.

They can gain valuable experience in other ways, such as stretch assignments. While that does not provide global experience, "it still does put you in a better position to understand" the workings of your organization and "puts your whole career on a different footing" for further advancement, she said.  

Read the first and second installments of this series. The fourth in a five-part series of articles on organizational and employee learning explores a reverse internship program at RBC Wealth Management-U.S. corporate headquarters.

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