Global Mobility Should Help Women and Minorities Break the Glass Ceiling

Olivier Meier
9 min readMay 22, 2020


Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

Fostering workforce diversity, especially at the managerial level, ranks high in the list of priorities in many companies. Yet, all too often the role played by global mobility to help companies reach their goal is underestimated. Global mobility is both part of the problem and part of the solution when it comes to achieving diversity.

In many multinational companies, going on international assignments is presented as a way to boost employees’ careers and as a precondition to reach top managerial levels. The logical consequence of this assumption is that the absence of diversity in the expatriate workforce could limit diversity in upper management. Having greater international assignee diversity could help women and minorities breach the glass ceiling.

It’s time to review mobility from a diversity perspective and ask ourselves: are current mobility policies and practices truly helping companies achieve gender parity and integrate minorities in the international workforce or, on the contrary, are policies failing to meet the needs of specific categories of employees?

Mind the mobility gap

We often hear about a potential digital gap that divides employees between those who are tech savvy and will benefit from the digital revolution and those who will have limited employability due to their lack of skills and limited access to new technologies. Is there a similar gap between highly mobile employees and those with no international experience?

The risk is the development of two workforces: on one side internationally mobile employees able to take advantage of the benefits of global mobility to boost their career within their companies or market themselves elsewhere. On the other side, employees without international experience who are not benefiting from global mobility opportunities, who are on a slower career path, and who might even be forced to relocate just to preserve their job (constrained mobility).

From a diversity perspective, there is evidence that women and some minorities might be on the wrong side of the mobility divide.

The results of Mercer’s Worldwide Policies and Practices Survey reveal that overall women represent less than 20% of the expatriate workforce (employees sent on assignment by their companies) and that the figures for the best performing countries and industries were still lingering in the 20 to 40% range — which is far from parity. Some minorities can also be underrepresented in the expatriate workforce or turned down for assignments because of their nationality, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, or disability.

Management might consciously or unconsciously assume that certain groups of employees would not be able to perform their jobs effectively due to the situation in the host locations (cultural issues, official or widespread discrimination, hardship conditions in general etc.) or simply would not want to go on assignment (due to hypothetical family constraints for example.) At the same time, mobility candidates from these groups might dismiss themselves due to the perceived lack of practical support and absence of role models.

The existence of a gap is not systematic and is not impacting all companies equally. It reflects to some extent the importance of global mobility within each company. In many companies going on assignment as such is no guarantee that people will automatically get promoted — there is often a discrepancy between the official company message and the reality. However, within truly international companies, the absence of international experience could limit career perspectives — at least above a certain level (usually mid-management.)

Understanding the impact of mobility on individuals’ career and determining whether mobility can boost career progression for all employees requires an understanding of the factors that have an impact on career.

Understanding career accelerators and their links to mobility

Corporate career accelerators

Some of the key factors that are important to accelerate expatriates’ careers include having:

  • The right job: The way to the top within a company is not always a direct one and employees will have different positions throughout their career that will prepare them for top management. However, not all positions are equal when it comes to boosting employees’ careers. The types of positions that are real career accelerators depend on the company and industry sector. In some organizations, having experience in finance might be important to reach top management. In other companies, being country manager might be a precondition to make it to the top. Global mobility plays a role by allowing high potential employees to access these jobs globally.
  • The right skills: The required skillset depends on each company but is likely to be a mix of technical and managerial competencies (international management) as well as soft skills including intercultural skills and people management skills. In terms of knowledge, understanding current or future key markets for the company and staying up to speed with new trends are career accelerators.
  • The right network: a corporate career is at best about team work and at worst a political game — in any case, the cliché about who you know being as important as what you know is often true. Proximity to top management, the opportunity to exchange and learn from the company’s top designers, best trained engineers, top performing managers, and more generally the ability to network with those who can be qualified as the “top influencers” within the company is a differentiator. The location of employees (at HQ, in a major regional hub or on the contrary in a small remote operation) influences their ability to build an efficient network.

Mapping corporate career accelerators with assignment destinations

Interesting patterns emerged from a previous exercise I have done with major company in the fast moving consumer goods sector about mapping potential career accelerators with assignment destinations: working in selected assignment destinations were clearly identified as a fast track to reach top managerial levels while other destinations provided little career benefit.

The most important locations for that company included China (due to the size of the market), the United States (where the company has major production and R&D centers) and Africa (the company had a strategic development plan for the region). These locations were prime destinations for high potential talent and for strategic international moves. Having experiences in these locations was clearly a career accelerator.

Other destinations, like Belgium, Russia, and Thailand for example, did not provide the same career boost. This was not because these countries were not important markets as such but because there were not part of the strategic expansion plans of that company and did not constitute important hubs. Assignees based in these locations were somewhat isolated from a networking perspective and were not involved in the most innovative projects. Employees relocated to these locations were experts addressing business issues rather than future leaders.

The exercise helped map talent development priorities and had implications for diversity: women represented a quarter of the international assignees overall but only 15% of the assignees to China and 10% of assignees to Africa. Given the importance of these two markets for the company, this had consequences for the leadership talent pipeline and the company’s goal to achieve managerial parity. Similarly, several nationalities were underrepresented in international moves to major corporate hubs and that was having an impact on the long-term career perspectives of these employees.

Once the career accelerators and their links to mobility are understood, the next steps are about implanting effective diversity enablers in mobility policies and practices.

Four steps to implement diversity enablers in mobility policies

1- Creating awareness and reviewing policies from a different perspective

The diversity issue has to be put on the global mobility radar. Diversity teams are not always involved in global mobility discussions — they should join the company’s mobility steering committees (if there is one) or at least regularly be part of the strategic mobility management meetings.

Companies do policy reviews to ensure the competitiveness of their policies. The review should also be done from a different angle: the adversity perspective. Historically, mobility policies have been designed for traditional (western) expatriates with trailing (female) spouses and children going to international schools. Are these policies suitable for single mothers, gay couples, older workers caring for elderly parents, employees with light disabilities, and other groups with specific requirements?

The objective is not to completely change policies — most terms and conditions in the policies would remain valid for these groups — but making minor adjustments and adding a degree of flexibility could make a difference and help remove barriers to mobility for specific employee groups.

Introducing an alternative to traditional long-term assignments — such as moving jobs to people, extended business trips , and commuter assignments — can also help remove barriers to mobility for minorities.

2- Reviewing benefits and allowances

There are different ways to address the needs of different categories of employees:

  • Including measures specifically for specific groups — in other words clearly listing what would be done for situations that are important for these groups. This could be done by mentioning diversity more explicitly in the policy, introduce an allowance to cover day care for single mothers or providing special support to older expatriates caring for elderly parent for example. This approach has the advantage of sending a clear message to encourage specific groups to go on assignment but it might be complex to administer. There is a limit the level of granularity and differentiation that can be incorporated in a policy.
  • Allowing flexibility in the choice or the implementation of benefits and allowances. It could be for example giving the option to repurpose an existing budget: using the schooling allowance to cover day care or providing more trips home to assignees without children but who are caring for elderly parents. This can be done systemically and detailed in the policy or done on an ad-hoc basis. But if it’s done on ad-hoc basis, employees need to understand that the change is possible under specific circumstances — the rules needs to be clearly communicated and understood by management and expatriates.
  • Providing lump sums and let employees decide how to use them: given the growing diversity of the workforce, the complexity of the specific needs and the conflicting expectations of each group, this might be a tempting solution. The limit is that the purpose of the allowance might be lost (no clear message) and providing lump sum could be less tax effective in some locations. Taken to the extreme, the approach of lump sum and total flexibility can lead to a breach of duty of care. Retaining a degree of control and providing precise guidelines remain necessary when implementing lump sums.

In practice a mix of these three approaches could be implemented: giving more visibility to the diversity questions by mentioning explicitly in the policy that the company aims to remove barriers to mobility for all employees, providing lump sums for selected policy items and allow a degree of flexibility for other benefits.

3- Practical implementation: communication, coaching, and mentoring

Fighting the unconscious bias implies talking openly about issues linked to global mobility. The challenge is to distinguish between objective (hardship) and subjective (unconscious bias and cultural issues) barriers to mobility. It also implies recognizing that there might be a significant disconnection between the official diversity initiatives and the realities of expatriation.

Companies need to provide communication channels to allow employees to speak up about possible issues but without intruding into their personal lives. The family should also share in the discussion whenever possible. Diversity is not just about the employees — their family members could also be part of minority groups and face specific issues in the host locations.

Cultural training and coaching can help eliminate preconceptions — it should be available not just to the assignee and the family but also to management and to the assignee’ peers in the host destinations. Having a point of contact or mentor that is familiar with diversity issues and could also act as role model can make a difference.

4- Measuring success

Beyond simply monitoring the demographics of the expatriate workforce, different types of analyses can be performed:

  • A workforce progression analysis could help monitor the evolution of the careers of former expatriates: it should provide insights on employees that have been promoted (and if they have been promoted faster than their non-mobile peers), employees leaving the company (during the assignment, immediately after repatriation, and a few years after the assignment), and employees seeing their career stalling (staying too long in the same job). The analysis should be performed for different employee groups (women, minorities, age groups).
  • Employee satisfaction surveys: it can be measured during expatriation, upon return, and after return. The questions included can be about the perception of global mobility — especially in the context of diversity and equal opportunity — and its links to career progression.
  • Pay progression analyses: significant pay distortion among expatriates can be due to the types of expat pay package used over time (e.g. home base approaches, local plus approaches, and inflated local salaries), but a lack of pay parity could also be a symptom of unconscious bias or underperforming minorities.

Mobility & HR managers are stakeholders in diversity initiatives

The diversity debate provides an opportunity for mobility managers and HR to play a strategic role by addressing one of the most important challenges that companies are currently facing. Global mobility alone cannot solve all diversity issues, but it should at least be part of the solution rather than another part of the problem.

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Olivier Meier

Exploring trends about people management, workforce mobility, globalization, and the future of work.