International Assignments: Opportunities for Women


While expatriation is an exciting challenge, it can also bring with it a wealth of challenges – some of which can, unfortunately, be linked with assignee gender. Even as recently as the early/mid-2000s ERC reports dictated that most international assignments at that time were typically completed by older males, moving from Western to Eastern cultures. Comparatively these days, there are more opportunities to travel from East to West in-line with increasing demands for skilled labour in the West.

Trailing Spouses

Previously, most female expatriates were following a male partner to a new location as a ‘trailing spouse’ – terminology which is rapidly becoming old hat.  However, with equal opportunities becoming an ever more prevalent topic in the workplace across all industries, trends are shifting, and studies now show that there is a somewhat more equal split between male and female expatriates relocating for work purposes, however, amongst professional expats males remain in the greater majority.

Middle East

Whilst opportunities for expat females to travel for business are on the rise, it is unfortunately true that some locations still pose definite challenges for women which are not present for their male counterparts. For example, professional women on international assignment in regions with more traditional or segregated gender values, such as the Middle East, may be faced with greater challenges than they would if being relocated to European or US locations.

Gender Segregation

Studies have shown that business and corporate environments in the Middle East are still male-dominated. In 2018, Saudi Arabian law introduced new flexibility regarding the daily travel and routines of women by lifting the ban on female drivers. However, there are some seemingly basic daily struggles faced by female expats which male colleagues may not need to consider, for example, use of fitness and gym facilities or safe access to public transport, which is gender-segregated.

Hotel Facilities

As part of blog for Reuters, Reuters Editor Arlene Getz described her experience of trying to use gym and pool facilities at a fashionable Riyadh hotel whilst on a business trip: “As a woman, I wasn’t even allowed to look at them (‘there are men in swimsuits there,’ a hotel staffer told me with horror) – let alone use them.” In SA, males and females are only publicly seen together in a family context. Women have less legal rights than men and are typically under the authority of a male guardian (usually a family member).

Experienced Assignees

In the early 2000s reports showed that overseas positions were generally filled by individuals that had already experienced international assignments (men) as opposed to limited numbers of less experienced relocators joining the travelling ranks. These days new expatriates are more commonly travelling for business, and many of those new expatriates are women relocating as an individual or with their own spouses and families.

Cultural Training

When it comes to the cultural adjustment of the relocating individual, gender plays a role in geographies where gender equality is not viewed or actioned in the same way as within the assignee’s country of origin. Despite cultural training, adapting can still prove difficult when relocating women face the reality of the new limitations placed upon them when arriving in their host location. Although the number of female professional expats is rising, this incline is slow in-line with the rate of shifting attitudes towards gender globally.

The Statistics

According to Learnlight’s eBook ‘Global Mobility in the Age of Diversity’ female expats represented only 25% of all international assignees in 2015. Another significant figure is shared in Grant Thornton’s ‘Women in Business Report 2019’ which gives the statistic that only 29% of women are holding senior positions worldwide. It appears progression for women remains slow with these numbers being strikingly similar. It is possible to surmise that women are likely being held back, at least in part, by a lack of overseas experience which would allow them to ascend to converted Executive posts for which international tenures are often viewed as a prerequisite.

International Experience

By being denied international and leadership positions, women often continue to struggle when encountering the cultural viewpoints which can act as blockades against their professional progression. Providing opportunities for women to travel on international assignments is one essential method by which organisations can assist with the breaking down of gender-based barriers, assisting women to obtain the international work experience they require to achieve the most senior of corporate positions.

Written by Katie Smith, Assoc CIPD, BA Hons | Head of Special Projects – HR, Talent & Content at Alchemy Global Talent Solutions.