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On International Women’s Day - how diverse are international assignee workforces?

Each year International Women's Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and marks a call to action for accelerating gender equality. Women are estimated to make up 40% of the workforce globally, so it follows that a similar proportion of companies’ globally mobile workforces should also be female. However, ECA’s latest Global Mobility Now survey found the average proportion of women in the mobile workforce to be considerably smaller than this. The results are consistent for long and short-term assignments, commuter assignments and permanent transfers.


Of the global workforce is female


Of long term international assignees are female, with a similar proportion for other assignment types.

Why is this important? The underrepresentation of women in the mobile workforce suggests significant numbers are potentially missing out on the enhanced career prospects and personal growth opportunities that working internationally can bring.  Living and working in another country requires adaptability and communication skills, attributes highly prized by employers who also value individuals with a global perspective when searching for their leaders of the future. Our survey found that 47% of companies expect to increase the number of countries they assign talent to in the next three years, while only 17% expect a decrease. As companies increasingly look to expand into more countries, they need to recruit individuals who are at ease working across global boundaries and understand international business operations. The more international experience you have, the more valuable you are for the insight and networks you can bring to grow the business globally. 

Companies are not only looking to recruit employees with international experience but to develop them internally too. 44% of companies reported an increase in the number of international assignments they have run for developmental purposes in the last three years and nearly 60% expect an increase in this type of assignment in the near future. If women are less likely to undertake an international assignment, then not only might they personally miss out on a career development opportunity but their employers will be selecting their assignees from a smaller group of people and missing out on the greater breadth of perspectives and experiences that a diverse talent pool can bring.

Most companies believe that they offer men and women equal opportunities to go on an international assignment, but this is not reflected by the actual number of female assignees and previous ECA surveys have found that half of companies have fewer women in their mobile workforce compared to their workforce as a whole. Clearly a more concerted effort is required if companies wish to increase gender diversity in their mobility programmes, but less than a quarter of companies have policies in place to promote this. The biggest barriers to more women joining the mobile workforce are believed to be that women with children are less likely to want to undertake an assignment and that their partners are less likely to want to come with them due to the risk it poses to their own career and income. However, these issues could equally apply to potential male assignees and companies must take care to avoid unconscious bias in their selection processes. The policies most commonly employed to boost diversity in the mobility programme are to actively monitor employees who have expressed an interest in working internationally and to encourage a “mobility culture” in the organisation, by making employees more aware of the international opportunities available to them and the career benefits of going on an assignment.

However, there is some cause for hope. Although progress is slow, successive ECA surveys have nearly always found an increase in the proportion of female assignees compared to previous years, and today’s statistics are a considerable improvement on those from our first Managing Mobility survey in 1994 when just 7% of assignees were female. Few companies ever predict that their number of female assignees is going to decrease, so we can hope and expect that their numbers will continue to rise in coming years.


Our brand new Global Mobility Now survey captures the latest trends in global mobility, including how mobile workforces are changing to meet business demands, how companies are using automation and data analytics and their approach to cost pressures, risk management and assignee experience. The results will be available to purchase in April.

ECA’s Managing Mobility Survey looks at how companies manage each stage of the international assignment lifecycle, from recruitment and selection through to repatriation, and how they overcome the challenges that arise at each stage. The next survey opens in April – make sure you are signed up to be alerted when the survey opens to get your FREE results.

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

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