Are companies keen on sending women on international assignments?

  • woman at the workplace
Published on 2022-03-09 at 08:00 by Katharina von Knobloch
The percentage of female expats is rising, but it is still far away from gender parity. Did you ever ask yourself why that is? Till the 80s, researchers are stating that there is a global glass ceiling similar to the corporate glass ceiling, making it more difficult for women to pursue a career abroad. In this article, you will learn about the global glass ceiling and how women who broke through this glass ceiling experienced life on the other side. 

The global glass ceiling of the Female Expat 

Despite dual-career couples and the gender debate in leadership positions, women are still often overlooked for international assignments. Hence women are underrepresented, and their careers are stagnating due to the “glass border”. As stated by the well-known researchers in that field Van den Bergh and du Plessis, “Women who wish to pursue careers abroad have to overcome many barriers such as tokenism, stereotypes and first have to break through the glass ceiling in their home country before being able to break through the glass border.“ 

According to research, this global glass ceiling is full of myths and yet difficult to break through. Many reasons why there are so few Female Expats that seem to have fallen out of time. One of the most mentioned reasons is that managers are reluctant to send women abroad. 

As international assignments are costly, women are seen as a high-risk operation. Managers either see the woman itself as a risk factor or the surrounding context. Arguments often mentioned are physical safety, hazards involved in traveling in developing countries, isolation and loneliness, possible negative reactions of superiors, subordinates, clients, and colleagues towards women in managerial positions (Adler, 1994, Janssens et al 2006). 

Are women really a liability?

Many research papers come to the conclusion that women are struggling with the male-dominated hierarchy that leads to male managers judging the suitability of female subordinates. Typical difficulties within the international transfer process are: 

  • Selection procedures, training, and preparation 
  • Senior managers' prejudices
  • The exclusion of women from formal and informal networks
  • The fact that expatriate positions tend to be relatively high in authority and status 

Hence, women experience obstacles accessing global jobs before being even able to prove themselves. When you look at how women perform at international work assignments compared to men, evidence shows a totally different picture. According to several research papers, female expatriates have significantly higher interaction and work adjustment levels but also a higher general adjustment level. 

How do women experience the other side of the glass border?

To get first-hand insights, I interviewed 30 female breadwinners who successfully broke through the glass border and are thriving professionally. 

All 30 women interviewed managed to overcome any potential corporate barrier in the international transfer process. Some argued that their industry is very gender neutral and that they did not experience any discrimination (e.g. Banking & Tourism). Others mentioned that they had been discriminated against and that they benefited from their confident and strong character to overcome those barriers and a strong will for a life abroad. Almost all of these role models experienced discrimination in some kind: 

  • Biases by home management regarding the compatibility for the job
  • Reception of inferior expat packages (compared to male colleagues in a similar position)
  • Less attractive destinations, projects, or clients to choose from compared to male colleagues
  • Less attractive follow-up contracts after repatriating compared to male colleagues in similar positions
  • Generally, more stagnating careers after expatriation compared to men

Many women shared how they had to earn respect first before being able to start working. They did so by investing more time and effort compared to male colleagues arriving at the same time at the new posting. They showed a high degree of ambition and commitment. 

In their own words: 

“Men tend to move up, and women tend to stagnate more. From my HR perspective, I can say that there is definitely a glass ceiling in corporate assignments but not in self-initiated expatriates.”

“The question was rather which positions do you get as a woman, and I did not experience a glass border but a glass border between subjects. As a woman, certain destinations and subjects that would have appealed to me were denied to me for a long time.”

"My company preferred to send single males abroad and justified it with the posting costs. I was classified as expensive, although I know of many men with families who earn significantly more and also have larger houses. The posting packages are very different depending on gender. I was denied a posting to London due to cost. Now the job is done by a man who flies home to family every weekend and has a larger apartment so his family can visit regularly.“

How to avoid the glass ceiling

Not all women experienced a global glass ceiling, and I took a closer look to reveal the reasons behind it. It seems as women found ways to escape the traditional selection path by either taking up their own initiative or profiting from more gender-equal industries and company cultures. We see a rising number of self-initiated expatriation while industries such as banking and tourism have already started to pay closer attention to an equal assignment policy.

If you want to know more about breaking through the global glass border, you can download this study for free here. What is your experience with working abroad as a woman? Let us know in the comments below.