What can companies do when expats face gender discrimination?

A new survey suggests businesses are ill-equipped to help international assignees, says Dr Benjamin Bader

The public discussion on gender discrimination has, quite rightly, generated enormous momentum around the globe. And the topic of discrimination against women on international work assignments is also receiving more attention.

Women are underrepresented in leadership positions, they earn less than men and they also suffer more from discrimination when on international assignment. The number of female assignees is significantly lower than men, and those who are on assignments face challenges because of their gender in many host countries. 

Consequently, gaining international work experience can be particularly difficult for women. Yes, men and women face the same challenges adapting to cultural and political differences. However, there are several locations where women face other seemingly insurmountable hurdles.

The RES Forum tackled this issue recently, asking expatriates about their experiences with gender discrimination abroad. Though we didn’t expect a discrimination-free environment, the intensity and widespread existence of discrimination was surprising – almost 50 per cent of women indicated they had experienced discrimination in the form of sexist comments or jokes. We felt the need to investigate further to see to what extent this was understood in corporate head offices.

We asked global mobility managers in multinationals how they perceive gender discrimination when considering their company’s assignee population. In particular, we wanted to know how often they are made aware of incidents, if there is a standardised procedure to deal with them and whether they believe the measures to prevent discrimination are sufficient.

It’s clear that, more often than not, corporate head offices are unaware of the extent of discrimination. In fact, 75 per cent indicated they had never been directly made aware of gender discrimination by their expatriates. 

Given the large number of women on international assignments reporting some form of gender discrimination, it’s also clear that many female expatriates do not report problems to their headquarters but deal with them on their own. We can only speculate about the individual reasons for that, although part of it may be that women do not want to be stigmatised in the organisation back home and therefore decide to remain silent.

That doesn’t mean that the issue is completely unknown in head offices. Some global mobility managers said sources other than their expatriates were reporting it. A good deal of this discrimination was perceived to be subtle and not always face-to-face – for instance, expatriates have encountered situations where locals were uncomfortable in the presence of women and reported this to their supervisor. Another common misconception was that the women must be less senior than she actually was – and was treated as such. 

The RES Forum’s research also noted huge – and not unexpected - differences between countries and regions, with the highest levels of discrimination in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In some countries, gender discrimination is so deeply rooted it hardly makes any difference whether the woman discriminated against is a local or a foreign assignee.

Organisations have a duty of care to all employees, regardless of whether they are local hires or international assignees, male or female. We asked about measures being taken to prevent discrimination and whether they think they are sufficient. At a basic level, almost all companies report having a complaint and reporting mechanism, as well as a process for resolving complaints. Many also have anti-discrimination policies and offer diversity training. 

But when we asked whether they believe the tools in place to prevent discrimination were sufficient, only 63 per cent said this was true for all locations, while 32 per cent said the measures were sufficient in some locations and 5 per cent believe their measures are completely insufficient.   

Focusing on specific host countries is essential not only when investigating (potential) discrimination but also when implementing preventative measures. There is still a long way to go, and some sort of glass ceiling for female expatriates still exists, at least in some countries. It’s important to talk about this issue, bring it to the attention of all organisations and develop measures and tools that are truly effective when implemented.  

This article is based on recent research carried out by Prof. Dr Benjamin Bader and colleagues. Dr Bader is an academic partner and strategic adviser to the global mobility forum and community, The RES Forum, and professor of strategic management and organisation at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany. Contact The RES Forum at office@theresforum.com if you are interested in the full report and accompanying toolkit.