Why do so many women take a pass on relocation?

Just one-fifth of transferees are female executives
By Linda LaChapelle
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/22/2014

When it comes to relocations, 82 per cent of employers believe an international assignment would be a positive experience in an executive’s career, according to the 2013 Cartus survey Talent Management and the Changing Assignee Profile. However, only 21 per cent of international assignees in 2012 were female.

Which begs the question: Why the gender gap?

While some progress is certainly being made in terms of the number of women in leadership positions, the issues with international transfers have remained fairly constant over the years, as seen in the rather consistent breakdown in previous surveys since 2007: Typically, 80 per cent of relocations are male and 20 per cent are female.

Interestingly, the 2013 survey also found only 12 per cent of women had a high interest in taking international assignments overall, versus 39 per cent of men.

Family matters

When it comes to assignments, it’s unclear whether the 20 per cent number is due to women refusing transfers. But with so much emphasis on emerging markets, it is possible women who have been offered assignments may have turned them down due to family concerns, which is further noted in the 2014 Cartus Trends in Global Relocation: Global Mobility Policy and Practices Survey of international mobility managers.

Survey respondents listed "inability of the family to adjust" as the second most-cited reason (61 per cent) for assignment failure, just two percentage points behind "changing business conditions" (63 per cent). Even before a move, the importance of family cannot be underestimated — 76 per cent of respondents rated "family or personal circumstances" as the top reason employees turn down relocation assignments.

The fact that an accompanying spouse or partner cannot obtain paid employment in most countries is likely a major factor. Although volunteer work and involvement on many other fronts can be extremely satisfying, and often lead to new and unforeseen opportunities, the basic inability to pursue and obtain employment can be a real issue for many couples, leading to an inability or reluctance to accept an international assignment.

Stress can also occur in split family situations when the assignee and family live in separate geographic locations during the assignment, with the employee travelling back and forth. The number of companies that said family members are always allowed to accompany an employee on long-term assignments is down 14 percentage points in just two years.

A family’s happiness and ability to adjust are nearly as important to the success of a job relocation as the employee’s own job performance. The rise in split families is a trend that is occurring as companies reel in costs and move employees to new locations that can pose challenges in terms of infrastructure or security.

Further complicating issues for females in some non-Western locations is the fact women are often not permitted to drive, thus creating another completely different challenge.

Emerging markets

For emerging market locations, 12 per cent of women showed a high interest in assignments to these areas, versus 26 per cent of men, found Cartus. A lack of infrastructure, transportation and security issues can strongly impact these numbers.

Senior executives often believe the success of their organization depends on developing business lines in emerging markets. Because these locations often do not have trained locals, organizations are sending in their own management to get the business off the ground.

After the business is up and running, more members of management may be sent in to hire and train locals and perform a variety of other startup activities, and additional employees may be assigned to specific project work.

In addition to emerging market activity, companies are increasingly sending individuals to a variety of locations on developmental assignments. In order to retain key talent, leaders are recognizing that engaging and developing key talent will increase employee satisfaction and, in turn, retention rates.

Bridging the gap

Simply put, multinational firms can do a better job of providing and presenting international opportunities to female leaders within their organizations and helping female executives determine if an international assignment is right for them.

Additionally, managers and HR leaders can help these women to determine whether an international assignment fits their skill set and career aspirations by helping them choose assignments that encourage them to develop their skills for higher level roles, while allowing them to contribute in a collaborative team setting.

As companies increasingly focus on linking talent management with mobility as part of an overall workforce development strategy, they need to consider strategies that will place women on a more level playing field, including:

• developing global talent pools

• collaborating with HR to ensure performance ratings are considered when looking at potential assignment candidates

• creating a global posting process for assignments to allow more worldwide opportunities

• establishing executive mentoring programs.

With 50 per cent of companies expecting mobility volume to increase during the next two years, one of HR’s key challenges should be figuring out how to ensure female executives are receiving equal opportunities when it comes to job transfers.

Linda LaChapelle is director of sales and business development at global relocation solutions company Cartus in Montreal. She can be reached at linda.lachapelle@cartus.com or, for more information, visit www.cartus.com.