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The Glass Ceiling is Intact for Expats

April 1, 1999
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Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Diversity, Featured Article
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If you’re an expatriate, it’s stillvery much a man’s world. Although survey respondents represent every industryand organizations of all sizes, and although employees in several types of jobsare sent on assignments, the overwhelming majority of expats are men. In theaverage organization, 90 percent of expats are men.

    But the glassceiling becomes even more apparent when respondents answer questions abouteligibility. Of employees who are eligible for an expatriate assignment,respondents say that 71 percent are men. In organizations with a list ofidentified employees from which assignments are made, 75 percent are men. Giventhat women constitute approximately half the workforce, these numbers arealarming. 

    But the news getsworse. Despite the eligibility numbers, only one woman is actually offered anassignment for every ten men who are offered one. In other words, the number ofwomen offered assignments is consistent with the number of women expats onassignment. But that number represents fewer than half of those who areeligible. 

    There doesn’tappear to be any business reason for the discrimination, either. Respondents saythat women accept assignments at a greater rate than men do (90 percent of menaccept versus 99 percent of women). Women are also less likely to return earlyand have a greater assignment success rate. 

    So why are women sounderrepresented? Some experts attribute it to a perception that family issuesare a greater concern for women. Others see it a reflection of the belief thatwomen fare less well in certain countries or cultures. 

    Although one HRprofessional admitted, “I don’t know if I would want to be the first on myblock to send a woman to Japan to do marketing,” others downplayed thecultural barriers. “I think it’s more an American perception than areality,” says Carrie Shearer. “Women will have a great deal of difficultyin Arab cultures. But if they are set up properly, women can be quite successfulin Asia, Africa, and even South America.” 

    Malou Roth suggeststhat the situation may be driven more by domestic concerns than internationalones. She says that some organizations, concerned about their affirmative actionprograms, are less likely to send women or minorities abroad than to developthem at home. Because there also may be a perception that expatriates are offthe radar screen at home, organizations may choose not to send high-potentialwomen away for two years. “I think that a lot of people really feel that womenhave a better chance of accelerating their career growth in the UnitedStates.” 

    Franchette Richardssays that that’s even more likely to be true in some organizations than inothers. She says that women are more likely to be selected in newerorganizations, and less likely in industries in which men have traditionallydominated, such as oil or gas. 

    In any case, ifcompanies are to have long-term success in the global marketplace, they can’tcontinue to overlook half the workforce. 

Workforce,April 1999, Vol. 78, No. 4, p. 46 SubscribeNow!

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