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Where are Women in the Expatriate Workforce?
Leveraging female talent to increase global competitiveness

By Sapna Welsh and Caroline Kersten  1/1/2014

In our increasingly connected world, expatriates are the new “normal” workforce. Working and living abroad is becoming more common and takes on different forms, ranging from the traditional expat to third-country nationals. Assignments can be long term or short term, self-initiated or induced by an organization. Look around in your organization and people on your work teams and you will notice there are many different nationalities in a single geography because expatriation is not on the horizon, it is here. 

Unfortunately, women are highly underrepresented in these important roles. Let us take a closer look at the need for expatriation, the benefits awarded to organizations who deploy expatriates, and how to include women in this workforce.

The Need for Women in Global Leadership

Changing demographics are contributing to the increased need for expats worldwide. There is a startling workforce shortage and skills gap on the horizon. “To sustain projected growth, the U.S. alone needs twenty-five million more workers by 2030, Europe will need twenty-four million more workers,” and by 2020, China will need to double its talent base to sustain projected growth, according to the World Economic Forum.  There are three widely held reasons for the expected workforce shortage and skills gap at a global level.

First, there is an aging workforce combined with lower birthrates in developed countries.  Second, the newly emerging high-growth economies are employing growing numbers of workers. Third, domestic labor forces increasingly do not have the skills required for the jobs available. A viable solution to the workforce shortage and global skills gap is expatriation—intentional migration matching skilled workers to jobs.

Maintaining global competitiveness in an increasingly interconnected economy with new emerging markets is contributing to the increased need for expats. Organizations recognize that expatriation brings a global mindset and a diversity of perspective which allows leaders in global organizations to address dilemmas in order to gain and sustain that competitive advantage. The upward trajectory of international assignments over the past 20 years has been steady. As we look to the future, an explosion in the number of expats is predicted. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the number of international assignments will increase by 50 percent by 2020.  Unfortunately, organizations are also facing a leadership crisis. They cannot confidently fill their leadership pipelines, let alone fill international assignments. A viable solution to the increased need for leaders is tapping into female talent.

When you combine intentional migration (expatriation) with tapping into female talent, it is crystal clear that female expatriates are an optimal solution for organizations who want to develop a bench of competent global leaders to remain competitive. Women comprise over 40 percent of the employable global workforce, yet only 22 percent of all expatriate roles are held by women. The need for women to fill their share of expatriate leadership positions is here. Women are available, educated and possess many global leadership competencies in abundance.

Increasing the Number of Female Global Leaders

With relatively few women holding expatriate roles, we conducted primary and secondary research in order to harness fresh perspectives and insights into gender and cultural diversity in the global workforce. This research is applied to develop tomorrow’s female leaders and help them expatriate with excellence.

Over a two-year period, we identified and personally interviewed 62 women who expatriated and did it well. They are at or near the C-suite and in aggregate have been on a total of 150 expat assignments in 56 countries, representing every continent on Earth with the exception of Antarctica. Eighty-one percent of the women we talked to were married and 63 percent of them had children. In fact, 95 percent of the women interviewed said that their professional expat experience enriched their professional and personal lives. 

Our research uncovered barriers that women face in seeking expat roles—these go beyond the glass ceiling. In other words these are beyond barriers to moving up, they are barriers to moving out. We discovered challenges that are unique to professional female expats once they have moved abroad and we identified four global leadership competencies that are more pronounced for female expats due to the barriers and challenges mentioned.

Understanding and modeling these behaviors will give these women an edge to success. The four competencies identified are: self-awareness, conscious imbalance, operating outside your comfort zone, and active career management. Based on the barriers, challenges and competencies we identified among women in senior-level expatriate roles, initial steps should include:

  • Building awareness among management regarding the benefits of women in expat positions and barriers to women being selected for such roles.
  • Building awareness among high potential women around the rewards associated with expat roles.
  • Developing women to overcome self-imposed barriers, developing the four competencies for expat success, and providing a support network to encourage women to take on international assignments.

In light of the expected boom in the number of expats around the world, and the associated benefits expats bring to the table, organizations cannot afford to overlook women in their global leadership development programs. It may not seem simple to target future female expat leaders, but organizations can take immediate action to begin down the path of including women in the new global workforce in order to remain competitive.

Sapna Welsh and Caroline Kersten are Partners at LeverageHR. They work with organizations to help professional women be successful in the international environment through career coaching and skill building. They recently released the book Worldly Women - The New Leadership Profile.

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