International assignment key to diversity female leadership

04 April 2016 5 min. read

20% of financial services’ overseas assignments are filled by women, even while a majority are keen to take on such an assignment. As companies seek to improve the number of women in leadership, attract millennial talent, as well as widen their talent pipelines for leadership, focus also needs to be placed on every element of leadership formation – which includes supporting women taking on the international challenge.

International assignments have long been coveted by Millennial employees, and are seen as a stepping stone within many financial services corporates through candidates gaining an expanded set of cross-cultural soft skills and the ability to operate in diverse environments. Additional benefits include the transfer of best practice between global locations, supporting a global culture within multinational financial service firms. A pool of candidates with international experience creates the additional benefit that talent shortfalls in global regions can be met with already vetted, internationally experienced, candidates; with 70% of CEOs expecting the limited availability of skills as a threat to their growth prospects. While international assignments create a background for future global leadership, the number of women taking on global assignments remains lacklustre, at 20% of the internationally mobile population across all sectors. 

In a new report from PwC, titled ‘Women of the world: Aligning gender diversity and international mobility in financial services’, the professional services firm explores a number of factors holding women back from international assignments in the financial services industry, as well as ways of supporting improved uptake. This is at a time when 89% of organisations are intending to increase their use of international assignments over the coming two years. The report involves interviews of 628 respondents working in FS (384 women and 244 men) as part of a survey of nearly 4,000 participants across a range of industries in over 40 countries. In parallel, the firm interviewed 134 executives with responsibility in mobility to explore current trends in mobility, diversity and talent management. 

the critical international experience


Barriers and flexibility
One issues cited by the report, is that the prospect and stereotype of a woman not wanting to work oversees with a family (cited 45%), is one implication that precludes them implicitly from seeking international experience. Another, cited by 30%, is that international assignments are reserved for men. A further barrier is the perception that women are choosier about location, disqualifying them from a range of assignments. Additional issues faced by women, include a lack of role models, concern about their role upon return and poor transparency about the availability of international opportunities. 

The survey finds, however, that a number of perceived barriers are not aligned with reality. For instance, the number of women preferring to have an international assignment before having children is similar to that of men, at 73% and 77% respectively. Furthermore, 66% of women would be willing to work overseas at any stage during their career, which is higher than men at 60%. Fewer women (17%) surveyed cite the well-being and education of their children as a concern that would make them think twice about embarking on an international assignment, compared to 22% of men.The results of the survey further show that women are not so much more discerning about the people they would like to meet on assignment, with 32% of women in FS would be prepared to go anywhere, compared to 44% of men.

flexible assignments

While a number of barriers remain, women were found to be more flexible than men in terms of the length of assignments they would accept. The results find that, while women prefer long term assignments; at 53% wanting the traditional 5 year assignment, they generally were more open to shorter term assignments than men. 39% of women, however, would be interested in a 6-12 month assignment, compared to 33% of men. For very short-term assignments, women too are more interested; at 27% for women, compared to 16% of men.

improving talent pipeline

Moving forwards
The value of international experience for securing a place in the global talent pipeline for leadership, is cited as a key driver for increasing female participation in mobility programmes. Yet, many of the financial services firms surveyed do not connect the dots between diversity within leadership and international experience opportunities. While 60% of firms surveyed are using mobility to develop their pipeline of future leaders, only 22% are actively trying to increase the mobility of their female workforce.

To improve the outcome of the talent pipeline issue, the professional services firm considers four key pillars to improving the rate of women undertaking international assignments. One move is to promote their business as friendly to women undertaking international assignment as part of their talent acquisition procedure – according to the survey, 75% of women in financial services respond that such opportunities were critical in attracting them to work for their current employer (10% higher than the cross-industry result of 65%). A second move is to challenge the biases in the programmes that select candidates for international assignments, by, for instance, measuring the inclusiveness of diversity in the programmes. A third key move is to break down the silos of international assignments by expanding diversity issues into every aspect of business life, including international assignments. The final move is to create more options for international assignments, including, for instance, shorter duration assignments that are popular among women.