More women than ever before are being sent on international assignments by their employers, but they are far less likely to be accompanied by a partner than their male colleagues.
A new survey of over 100 multinational companies with nearly 17,000 male and female international assignees by Mercer Human Resource Consulting has found a particularly startling increase in the number of women being sent to work in Asia-Pacific, where companies say they have 16 times more females on assignment this year than they did in 2001.
Companies in North America have nearly four times as many while those in Europe have over twice as many.
"The huge growth in the number of females sent on assignment by Asia-Pacific companies reflects the fact that businesses in this region, particularly in China, are becoming increasingly global," said Yvonne Sonsino, Principal at Mercer Human Resource Consulting.
Over half of the multinationals surveyed (55 per cent) expect the number of female assignees to continue to increase steadily over the next five years, while a third believe the number will remain the same. A mere four per cent believe it will decline.
"Going on expatriate placements can be an important step on the career ladder, and women are increasingly interested in taking these assignments. Yet many companies' policies are outdated and do not reflect the changing profile of their expatriates, so assignees' requirements are dealt with on a case-by-case basis," said Ms Sonsino.
Though the companies surveyed generally do not have separate policies for female expatriates, the study found some differentiation in the treatment of male and female assignees. For example, 15 per cent of companies said they would not send women to hardship locations such as the Middle East.
But the big difference is that female expatriates are far more likely than their male colleageus to leave their partners at home when on assignment. While almost six out of 10 (57 per cent) of companies said the majority of their male assignees are accompanied by a partner, just 16 per cent said that most of their female expatriates are.
Yet female expatriates are also less likely than their male counterparts to have a partner prior to going on assignment. Three-quarters of companies said the majority of their male assignees had partners before going on assignment, but only a quarter said that the same was true for their female expatriates.
"Studies suggest partners of successful women also tend to have high-powered careers. When a woman is offered an international assignment, their partner may be less willing to make career concessions to accompany them," said Ms Sonsino.
"This may strengthen the need for companies to have well-defined spouse support policies which include assistance for the partner in finding work."
Yet as the survey makes clear, such support is largely lacking. Fully two-thirds of companies provide no incentives or support to help partners settle in the host location and where support is available, it is usually only given when specifically requested.
"An unhappy spouse can often cause an assignment to fail, so not spending money on support services can be a false economy for companies. While integrating partners into the local community may take time and money, it can ultimately pay off," said Ms Sonsino.
A still bigger disconnect emerges around female expatriates who are single parents. While more than one in 10 (12 per cent) of companies say that some of their female expats are lone parents, only four per cent provide additional support to this group of assignees.
"Expatriate programmes are simply not designed to cope with providing support for single parents. There is an increasing need for companies to update their policies in this area," Ms Sonsino concluded.