Originally posted on LearnLight | October 2017

Imagine this scenario: there is an exciting new role available in the international branch of your organization. There are two outstanding candidates for the role, Susan and Alan. Both have very similar qualifications and experiences and have glowing reports from peers and managers. Susan has recently got married, so without asking her, the job is offered to Alan. Susan has fallen victim to a problem facing many potential female assignees: some candidates are more equal than others. This situation, published by PwC is typical of the subtly of the institutional discrimination preventing female equality.

Global Mobility Is Not a Level Playing Field for Female Talent

Women are often excluded from senior roles because they lack international experience, and from all reports, international roles are much more likely to be offered to men.

The scenario is confirmed by the experience of real women:

“Discrimination is more subtle than salary and conditions…Being closed off from opportunities that would advance your career is most common. Something as simple as not having your name put forward to work with a customer because he ‘doesn’t like women’. The most difficult men to work with are those that believe information is power and deliberately keep you in the dark. The second most annoying are those that make ‘well-intentioned’ decisions about you. For example, ‘We didn’t ask you on that trip to Germany because we thought you wouldn’t want to leave the kids.’” Emma, IT Manager

The Federal Glass Ceiling Commission in the USA identified three types of barriers to the advancement of female talent and the achievement of female equality in the workplace:

  • Societal barriers
  • Internal structural barriers
  • Regulatory barriers

In Europe and North America, there are many initiatives to promote gender diversity and equality, but particularly in the field of international assignments, we are a long way to succeeding. But what are the myths and realities behind these barriers?

Societal Barriers

The reality is that we are not as gender-equal as we think. In fact, research shows that millennials are more likely to agree that women are more responsible for housework and looking after the children than the previous generation.

These subtle assumptions are inflated when it comes to choosing a candidate for a big international assignment. Just as in the scenario quoted above, leaders often base their decision on an unconscious bias against the “homemaker.” If the decision-maker believes that a woman is more likely to spend time looking after the house and the children, then it would be cruel to send that woman on assignment, and more cost-effective for the company to send a man.

We know from neuroscience that we make a judgement about a person in a fraction of a second, which is too quick to consciously process the factors leading to that judgement, so it is a change we need to make in organisational culture. This will bring about results, by creating an atmosphere where women are valued for their professional identity, rather than being victims of subconscious assumptions.

Internal Structural Barriers to Female Equality

Many organisations assume that female talent is more likely to refuse an assignment. This is a myth. In fact, women, aware of the glass ceiling and the importance of international experience for career development, are more likely than men to accept an assignment. In fact, anecdotally, they are less likely to negotiate their package than men, because they already feel disadvantaged, so want to make themselves more professionally attractive for the assignment.

More and more assignments are aimed at professional development, and therefore are coming earlier in the career path. Millennials are more socially and geographically mobile than any generation before them, and as traditional family patterns are adapted to the 21st century, it is not only illegal and irrelevant to consider the potential family situation when selecting an assignee, it is archaic.

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