Female first — winners, losers and the battle for gender parity

On International Women’s Day, LinkedIn and Instagram were awash with celebration and recognition of women in worldwide leadership. But behind the headlines, equality rates for international workers are slipping. In this edition of Reloverse, we look at one of the three key tenets of equality—action on gender parity. We examine how and why Global Mobility is failing to keep up and ask what we can do to promote and accelerate change.

Poor performance

Each year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates the time it will take to reach gender parity. Their benchmark survey across 146 countries shows at the current rate it will take 132 years to reach equality of pay and opportunity between women and men. The pace of change varies by country, company and category—but the expatriate workforce lags behind plenty of the poorest-performing sectors and societies. Female leadership rates in senior roles linger at 20-30%, while the number of women active across the global expatriate workforce sits steadfastly at under 15%.

Leading by example

In multinational organisations, international experience is important. Overseas assignments develop the skillsets of individuals while broadening their networks. Having women visibly in leading roles overseas normalises their equity and participation in management, particularly in countries where the gender parity gap is slowest to narrow. So, what are the barriers and how can HR and Global Mobility communities overcome them?

Bias and self-belief

Bias, conscious and unconscious, exists. It remains commonplace in corporate and conservative international cultures alike. But driven by data that shows the benefits of diversity, Human Resource planning has done much to eliminate prejudice. Wider female participation on boards isn’t simply something that’s right to do ethically, it makes commercial sense, too. The reality is that discrimination comes from several sources, including low expectation, awareness and sometimes a lack of self-belief. This demands additional, focused investment in training, and analysis while the talent pool is being built.

Global gaps

The predicted time to gender parity varies by region, with Europe and North America around 60 years and South Asia almost 200. But in almost every country, the themes seem the same. We’ve recently been updating our own library of destination guides that assignees use in their planning phase—and many of the things that thwart female participation are consistent across continents.

International issue

The WEF benchmarks countries with great geographic and cultural differences across four dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. Women in several sophisticated and successful countries remain hugely underrepresented in economic participation and opportunity, even where they make up close to half the working population. It means they earn less, have limited decision-making authority in business or politics, and are invisible as role models. This in turn limits the pipeline of aspirational and empowered female candidates for the next working generation.

In recognition of slow progress, many countries have put in place rights and reforms to narrow the gap. Several of these are driven by economic strategy rather than a desire for equality alone. In other territories, there’s an enduring sense that care and domestic duties should fall disproportionality on women. These attitudes became even more pronounced in periods of pandemic lockdown, leading to a backslide in the predicted rate of gender parity. The joint burden of being both homemaker and breadwinner has been dubbed as working the double shift.

These ingrained attitudes and cultural norms, continents apart, are more circular, self-fulfilling prophecies than conspiracies. They give rise to questions, consciously and subconsciously, about the suitability of women for international relocation. The consequences of this discrimination are made worse by female candidates effectively disqualifying themselves from the running, perceiving a lack of opportunity, suitability and support for themselves and their families.

The gender agenda

There are several things HR and Global Mobility professionals can think about, beginning with benchmarking and measurement. This needn’t be limited to data on applications and assignments, but also attitude surveys to better understand the barriers behind the inequality in those numbers. Sharing international stories of success also helps to redress the imbalance and normalise female leaders, without making their gender the centre or pioneering part of the piece. Closer cooperation between those responsible for diversity and inclusion and Global Mobility will also help ensure progression opportunities, benefits and allowances are communicated (and actively promoted) more clearly.

Positive stories are emerging, and the gender gap is closing. But the pace at which it narrows—how, where and when—can be influenced by our industry.

If you’re looking for a partner that understands the opportunities and challenges of gender diversity in international relocation, we would love to support you and your teams. Simply drop an email to reloverse@santaferelo.com and we’ll get back to you.





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