By Lisa Johnson, Global Practice Leader, Crown World Mobility

The number of female assignees in international mobility programmes – on average only 16% – is becoming an increasing concern for businesses as they seek to address inequality and finally find a way of breaking the 20% barrier.

Recent reports suggest that even though a small number of industries and companies have higher percentages, female assignees still account for less than 5% of the overall workforce; and despite greater awareness of the issue, the figures have remained largely unchanged for 20 years.

But is it finally time for change? Recent research shows that across many industries, global companies with a wider range of headquarter locations are investing heavily in D&I strategies. Their aim is to recruit and retain women in their organisations, especially for senior management positions.

Importantly, these companies see that goal as a business imperative which has a positive impact on their bottom line. So for global companies that require senior leaders with international experience and a global perspective, any barriers to assignment opportunities for women need to be addressed.

Results also showed a number leading-edge companies are finding creative ways to increase and support their female assignees, so perhaps now is the time to address the issue and close the gender gap at last.

Taking the first step is crucial, however, and it can come in all shapes and sizes. Here are five top tips to make it happen:

1. Track data on female assignees – How many female assignees do you currently have? How many have been on assignments in the past? And, where have they gone? Your gathered data can be quantitative or qualitative, depending on your resources and programme size. For a combination of the two, send a short survey (using a tool such as survey monkey) to current and past female assignees asking about their experience.

Interviewing some of them can also provide interesting insight and anecdotes that can make your numbers come alive. It is important to have data and talking points to share with your leadership and HR colleagues and use it to support any policy or program changes.

2. Address female employees’ barriers – Are women offered assignments, but saying no? Find out why. Is it the timing, the policy, the locations, the assignment durations or their personal situations? Global companies may provide longer lead-time for female employees, giving them a window of up to five years to take an assignment role. This allows for more personal barriers to be addressed, like family planning or dual-career scenarios.

Other companies offer the option to hire an employee’s qualified spouse/partner in the host location which minimizes the income loss for the family. Other policies such as spouse/partner support in the form of a one-time allowance, help with obtaining a visa or providing job-finding assistance, are increasingly the norm in more developed mobility programmes.

3. Address the assignment selection barriers – Are some managers more inclined to offer or select male assignees rather than female assignees? Perhaps there is an unconscious bias in managers, making assumptions based on a personal judgment that needs to be addressed. Companies with strong D&I strategies are tackling this bias by providing specific training to their recruiters and to the managers selecting employees for international assignments.

Ask your recruiting team if they can help organise an unconscious bias program for selection managers. Simply raising awareness of any company goals to increase the number of female assignees (by showing some data) and lifting barriers to reaching those goals would be a good starting point for the Global Mobility team. An email campaign, a presentation or a webinar will get the discussion going.

4. Support current female assignees – You could organise and offer webinars for current female assignees on global topics, and ask a senior woman in your organization to lead it. Select a senior level employee with international assignment experience of her own to speak to that experience and how it has influenced her career.

This could be held quarterly or annually; a great low-cost way to show assignment Return on Investment and generate candidate pool interest. Another idea is to provide a network or directory of current and past female assignees on your Mobility intranet site as a way to connect female assignees. Interview female assignees and publish them internally, to highlight their profile and experience, (give it a logo, brand or name it, if you can).

Connect senior women to younger female assignees to serve as mentors, buddies or simply to have a one-time conversation that engages and inspires them.

5. Review your policies and exceptions – A global company with best practices at linking D&I to Mobility recently rolled out new policies making past exceptions specific to female employees available as part of policy. Changes include providing support to divorced employees with custody of a child, allowing the child’s other parent to visit the assignment location and for children to visit the non-accompanying parent more.