Employers Sending More Women on International Assignments

By Gina Ruiz

Nov. 8, 2006

Employers are sending more female workers on international assignments than ever before, according to a report from Mercer Human Resource Consulting. The study looked at 100 multinational companies with about 17,000 male and female employees working overseas.

    This trend reflects the increasingly global nature of modern companies. Nowhere is this dynamic more palpable than it is in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly China, which reports the greatest rise in number of female assignees.

    Survey respondents in the Asia-Pacific region say they have 16 times more females on assignment this year than they did in 2001, according to Mercer principal Yvonne Sonsino.

    But this is not the only region experiencing a boom in the number of female assignees. Respondents from North America report having nearly four times as many female assignees, while their European counterparts say they have twice as many.

    The trend is expected to continue. Fifty-five percent of respondents anticipate that the number of female assignees will increase steadily over the next five years. Only 4 percent of the survey participants believe the number of female assignees will decline.

    For their part, female workers are willing to take on assignments overseas because they can open opportunities for professional advancement.

    “Going on expatriate placements can be an important step on the career ladder, and women are increasingly interested in taking these assignments,” Sonsino says.

    Yet, going overseas could entail personal drawbacks for some female workers. Many companies’ policies are outdated and do not reflect the changing profile of their expatriates, according to Sonsino.

    Almost 85 percent of the companies in the study reported that female workers go on overseas assignments alone. By contrast, 60 percent of companies said the majority of their male assignees are accompanied by a partner.

    “Studies suggest partners of successful women also tend to have high-powered careers,” Sonsino says. “When a woman is offered an international assignment, their partner may be less willing to make career concessions to accompany them.”

    Paltry benefits could contribute this dynamic. Sixty-six percent of survey respondents provide no incentives or support to help partners settle in the host location. And in the instances where support is available, it is usually only given when specifically requested. For example, only 7 percent of respondents offer partners information on the local job market, though 37 percent said they would provide it if assignees asked.

    Companies do little in helping single parents on overseas assignments.

    “Expatriate programs are simply not designed to cope with providing support for single parents,” Sonsino says. “There is an increasing need for companies to update their policies in this area.”

    In the survey, 12 percent of companies said they have female expatriates who are single parents, yet only 4 percent provide additional support to this group of assignees.

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