Number of women expats increasing

As the number of women on foreign assignments rises, employers are reviewing relocation policies

The long-standing stereotype of an expatriate being a male with a non-working spouse on a multi-year international assignment is changing as more and more women are taking on key roles, both at home and abroad.

According to a recent Mercer survey of more than 17,000 expats, North American companies are relying on more women to pursue international business opportunities — about four times as many as in 2001. This shift has made many Canadian companies review their international assignment policies to reflect the rising number of female expats.

Different needs call for adapted solutions

Although international assignment policies typically do not distinguish between genders, it is clear that the circumstances affecting these assignments are changing as more women take roles abroad:

•female expats are more likely than males to leave their partners at home when on assignment;

•female expats tend to take on shorter or commuter assignments; and

•frequently, both partners have high-powered careers.

Women, more often than men, pay greater attention to the long-term implications and impact of an assignment on personal and family security and well-being. They also pay more attention to the long-term impact international assignments have on their careers. Advance planning for successful repatriation is also of greater importance to women.

As a result, employers are taking another look at expatriate policies to ensure the needs of women on international assignments are being met with respect to compensation, employee benefits, security, support and information.


Short-term assignments generally last six to 12 months but are sometimes extended on an “as needed” basis. These assignments result in a wider range of expenses for living costs than do traditional business trips or commuter assignments. However, they are not the same types of costs as for employees on long-term assignments.

Per-diem allowances are one approach used to manage costs for short-term assignees, taking into consideration the degree of “hardship” and cost-of-living in the host country. This approach is based on a standard “basket” of typical expenses such as meals in restaurants, laundry and dry cleaning, personal care, entertainment, transportation, telephone and accommodation.

Expatriates are now more likely to insist that their employer develop a clear, easily explained and consistent expense-reimbursement process for short-term assignments.

Employee benefits and related services

Too many employers try to use their group health plans to cover short-term assignees since their dependents typically remain in Canada. But there can be gaps or inconsistencies in both the coverage and services needed:

•insurer and/or employer access and support may not be available around the clock;

•inappropriate or no coverage for routine medical and dental care;

•poor support in terms of understanding the host country’s medical facilities and amenities;

•poor cost management abilities often combined with inconvenient reimbursement of international claims; and

•often impractical repatriation requirements in the event of a prolonged disability.

One approach that works well in many cases is to cover short-term assignees through dedicated international medical insurers and providers while retaining domestic health insurance coverage for dependents who remain in Canada. From the employer’s perspective, the financial risk is better managed by these specialized carriers. Plus, any significant medical claims will not impact the domestic claims experience.

Security measures

The choice of assistance provider is a key consideration since these providers should be contracted based on their experience and international resources. In an emergency situation, expats must have a clear understanding of what support will be available to them. Here are some points to bear in mind:

•What are the implications if emergency medical treatment is not available in the host country?

•Who and where are the appropriate contacts and resources?

•Who makes the decision if a medical or non-medical emergency evacuation is necessary?

•Does the host country make a difference from the political, geographical or bureaucratic perspectives when it comes to how an evacuation will be managed?

Employers may want to consider having kidnap and ransom policies in place for employees working in high-risk areas.

Support for the expat and dependents

To reduce the risk of failed assignments, many employers are doing a much better job of providing training and support to help prepare employees for their new lives abroad. Acclimation to the new job and lifestyle can be greatly improved through cross-cultural training programs. Even if their dependents stay in Canada, they too may need help adjusting to the absence of a parent. Increasingly, employers are including employee and family assistance programs geared toward assignment preparation and support, whether for the expat or the family being left behind, as well as upon repatriation.

Margaret Sim is a principal with Mercer Health and Benefits in Montreal and is manager of Mercer’s proprietary benefit program for expatriates and third country nationals. She can be reached at [email protected]. Liam Dixon is a principal with Mercer Health and Benefits in Montreal, specializing in international benefits consulting. He can be reached at [email protected].

Feeling connected

The benefits of keeping in touch with expats

“Out of sight” cannot be “out of mind” for international assignees. Staying connected to the expatriate can have very real benefits for the expat and the employer. Here are some tips how:

•Use e-mail. Provide frequent updates on what’s going on in Canada so the expats don’t feel so far away.

•Adapt information that domestic employees receive to the expat’s context.

•Consider creating a subset of the company’s intranet for assignees.

•Use an external intranet or website dedicated to expat communities, such as

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