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Changes enabling companies to make mobile workforces more diverse

The terms ‘expatriate’ and ‘assignee’ can invoke preconceived stereotypes, especially among those whose professional roles do not necessarily involve the management of a mobile workforce. The standard stereotype of an expatriate has, for a long time, been a mid-career, Western male accompanied by his wife and two children in their host location. 


Of companies are looking to make their assignee workforces more diverse.

ECA’s policy surveys, such as our regular Managing Mobility Survey and Expatriate Salary Management Survey, as well as our recent Driving Diversity in Global Mobility survey, show that for many international human resources practitioners the standard stereotype still applies. However, there are changes afoot and the mobile workforce is now more diverse than ever. This is important since one of the reasons companies send staff on assignment is to promote a greater understanding of the company’s global workforce and markets. It is essential for senior management to understand local market needs when operating in countries or regions where the market for goods and services is different to what the company is used to in its home markets, and having people who understand why this may be the case is crucial. 

When we surveyed companies for Driving Diversity in Global Mobility earlier this year (appropriately on International Women’s Day), encouragingly 61% of respondents said they were looking to make their workforces more diverse. But how are companies doing this and what can you do to facilitate such a development in your organisation? 

Is your assignee workforce older or younger than it used to be?


Of assignees fall into the 35-49 age bracket compared with 53% in 2010.

Interestingly, our data shows that the age composition of long-term assignees has not greatly changed. Our 2010 Managing Mobility survey showed that 53% of long-term assignees fell into the 35-49 age group. When we surveyed this again in 2018 in our Expatriate Salary Management Survey, 54% of long-term assignees were within this age group. The proportion of assignees below 35 actually dropped from 28% to 21% during the same period and the average age of assignees rose. Only 19% were over 50 in 2010, but this rose to 25% in 2018.

These figures likely reflect facts associated with long-term assignments. When companies send staff on such a project, it is largely because there is a critical or strategic need for a person’s skills and experience in a senior or leadership role in the host location. Such roles require an employee to have gained experience or technical competency over significant time, so it is not surprising that companies are not rushing to send younger people on long-term assignments. 

Furthermore, it is clear companies are trying to promote the mobility of younger staff through the increased adoption of shorter-term assignments. Many companies now incorporate training and development schemes for high-potential staff into their mobility programmes, with such employees spending periods of up to a year overseas to develop skills or an understanding of the organisation’s international operations. This is also often a viable talent retention tool, which is crucial for companies operating in high-growth markets where business expansion can be constrained by high turnover rates. Therefore, for companies seeking to encourage mobility among younger employees, short-term assignments seem to represent a key part of the mobility toolkit.


Of long-term assignees are women;
up from 17% in 2016.

The assignment glass ceiling

Good news regarding diversity comes from the fact that women now make up a growing proportion of the long-term assignment workforce. Our 2018 survey reported that 25% of long-term assignees are women. While this is still low, it is much higher than in 2016 when our data showed that women made up only 17% of the long-term assignment workforce. The change may result from a conscious decision on the part of some companies to actively select female employees for assignments, but it also likely reflects the recent progress of female employees with obtaining positions of seniority generally, making them more likely to become candidates for the senior roles associated with long-term assignments. 

When companies have had success in increasing the percentage of females in their assignee workforce, it has often been due to changes in mobility policies. For example, funding education for dependent children on assignment is now much more common. Although the number of companies who meet costs associated with childcare for younger children or their kindergarten education remains relatively low, with 19% sometimes or always providing assistance with such costs, we believe this also represents a rising trend. Occasionally, companies even meet costs such as those associated with nannies accompanying employees’ children on assignment, and although this is rare, such policies have likely led to more women with young families being willing to accept international postings. After all, our latest survey shows that companies consider children as the biggest barrier to plans for increased female uptake. 

The next largest barrier to mobility for female employees is the perception that male partners would be unwilling to give up their jobs to accompany their spouses abroad. However, both the rise of remote working and partner support policies, combined with flexible immigration laws in various countries which allow dependent spouses the right to work, seem to have assisted in making this issue somewhat less of a barrier to mobility professionals than it used to be. 

Promoting a more cosmopolitan workforce

Most companies feel that they offer the same opportunities for assignments for all nationalities and ethnicities. The fact that our 2016 survey showed that the most common traffic patterns for long-term assignments included Taiwan to China, Hong Kong to China, Singapore to Indonesia and Thailand to Vietnam should hopefully dispel the long-standing perception that assignments typically originate from the West. Indeed, companies have actively targeted certain ethnicities for certain assignments if they feel that the employee is more likely to succeed in the host location. It’s not uncommon for companies to select from the overseas diaspora of ethnic Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese within their workforces to go on assignment to China, India and Vietnam respectively. Of course, companies don’t just look at an employee’s ethnicity when selecting an assignment candidate and there are often barriers to the success of such candidates on assignment. Examples include a lack of acceptance by local colleagues of a senior colleague of the same ethnicity who has been assigned from overseas, as well as a lack of cultural awareness of the assignment location by the assignee despite a shared link in terms of ethnicity. However, such challenges are often overcome through pre-departure or on-arrival cultural training.

The strides many companies have taken to promote greater inclusiveness of different sexual orientations within overall workforces can unfortunately be difficult to extend to international assignments. This is partly because companies sometimes lack concrete data regarding the sexual orientation of their assignees. However, where barriers are noted, the main ones can be regulatory, such as restrictions imposed by potential assignment destinations regarding visas. Negative attitudes towards LGBT people in some host locations are also a common consideration. Such issues can effectively close certain destinations to LGBT employees, thereby limiting their opportunities to undertake international assignments. 

Companies are aware of the impact that immigration restrictions place on their ability to attract and retain such talent, and are responding vigorously in some cases, as seen recently in Hong Kong. There, when a same-sex couple successfully applied to have the territory’s definition of a dependent spouse amended to include a same-sex spouse, they were actively supported by a large contingent of Hong Kong’s multinational companies. This action shows the importance such organisations place on assignments being open to everyone irrespective of age, sex, ethnicity or gender. It also makes clear that, while companies can promote mobility through changes to their own policies, they can also use their influence in the countries they operate in to try to bring about regulatory and legislative change in order to engender more diverse mobile workforces. 


The Managing Mobility Survey is available to buy online and takes a detailed look at the challenges companies face when managing long-term assignments and the actions they are taking to overcome them.

ECA's Expatriate Salary Management Survey is also available to buy and aims to establish the latest trends and challenges in the application of international assignment pay and policy for long-term assignees.

ECA’s International Assignment Guides inform and guide employees about the realities of a potential move abroad so that they can decide whether an assignment is the right choice for them. There are three guides for three different scenarios: Planning to Work Abroad?, Together on Assignment and Returning Home.


  Please contact us to speak to a member of our team directly.

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