Women and international careers - what are the bottlenecks?

Reports on a JGM BitBlog of our article on women’s underrepresentation in international assignments

[This post was written for JGM BitBlog and was first published there in January 2022.]

Have you stagnated after an impressive career? Do you feel like a star that has lost its shine? Let’s present some evidence. First, the war for talent has been unleashed. Companies desperately need (your) skills and abilities to succeed in a world of fierce and global competition.

Second, to steer companies through these challenges, organizations need experienced ‘captains’ who have sailed international waters. As a result, managers in organisations are expected to rotate through various overseas assignments, pursuing a ‘pilgrimage path’ that exposes them to different cultural experiences and puts them on a ‘fast track’ to gain global skills.  

So, what’s is the problem?  

Well, there is probably none if you are a man, but if you are a woman... then you have just found your bottleneck. Women are underrepresented in international assignments (IAs) and thus international experience is out of many women’s reach. This is not caused by poorer performance, success, or adaptation in foreign destinations. Women typically excel in communicating across cultures, if only they are given a chance. Therefore, women’s underrepresentation in IAs represents an unfortunate waste of human capital and competitive advantage.  

So, what is going wrong? 

Drawing upon a system dynamics approach, we show that women’s underrepresentation in IAs results from multiple and often distant forces influencing both the pipeline and number of women expatriates. Underlying these negative dynamics are strongly held collective beliefs and stereotypes about the problems associated with sending women abroad.

Based on this prejudice, women are then denied this chance, which sets up a new barrier in their access to senior management positions. Fewer opportunities to acquire international and intercultural skills decreases the number of women with the capabilities required for top management roles, which results in a lower representation of women in the C-suite.  

What can be done to avert these negative loops? 

Following a system dynamics approach, we conclude that many interventions to improve women’s representation, such as affirmative action, end up having the opposite effect by triggering new and renewed resistance. A more sustainable solution lies in addressing the unconscious bias against women and in improving the perception of women's success in international destinations. 

To achieve this, simple but interconnected actions are often more effective than complex ones. Investing heavily in mentoring women, involving those who have successfully taken up positions abroad as mentors, is a first step. This should be supported by improving pre-departure training and promoting the professional development of those who are keen to embark on IAs. Finally, companies need to offer support to reconcile any constraints in women’s personal and family life.  

Above all, companies are urged to address the risk of losing female talent in a context of increased competition and change. Women represent both a valuable and an untapped source of human capital, so losing them is a serious business mistake.  

To read the full article, please see the Journal of Global Mobility publication: 

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