When Jennifer Drabble decided to relocate to Johannesburg from her firm’s London headquarters, she knew adjusting to her first overseas assignment would be difficult.

She started slowly, with travel to South Africa from her London home base, then took on a six month posting, and now plans to stay for a few years or more. A year later, the risky move has so far paid off for Drabble, now a data-driven product manager for Barclays Africa Group. She has a year’s worth of management experience, something most of her peers back home are still vying to get. What’s more, Drabble now counts local executives as mentors.

“The exposure and accelerated opportunities that I’ve had have been phenomenal,” she says.

But as a woman thriving on an overseas expat assignment, Drabble is in the minority. Despite increased interest from women, the number of female executives being offered and taking overseas positions remains relatively small compared to male counterparts.

Despite having the same willingness […] as their male counterparts, 64% of women say they were never offered a move abroad

“Women are just as likely to accept offers to work abroad, but they are simply less likely to be offered the opportunity to take on these roles” by their firms, says Cynthia Emrich, a vice president at Catalyst, a New York-based global nonprofit that promotes women in the workplace.

Only about 17% of women take international assignments compared to 28% of men, according to a 2012 report from Catalyst that studied high-potential employees from top business schools. Despite having the same willingness to take on a global role as their male counterparts, 64% of women say they were never offered a move abroad, compared with just 55% of men, the report showed.

‘Benevolent sexism’

Even as companies say they want to develop the careers of their female high-potential employees through mentorship programs or leadership workshops, many are still not encouraging them to take on high-profile global roles. Many women are passed over for roles that require relocation because of the perceived difficulty of them convincing their trailing spouse or in the expense and complication of moving an entire family abroad.

“Some firms assume that family responsibilities or obligations are obstacles holding back women in their careers, but not men in theirs,” Emrich says.

There’s also a misguided belief among some companies that women have spouses excelling in their careers who won’t want to move. All together, it’s led too many companies to assume global career moves are less important or less desirable to women, she says.

“A kind of ‘benevolent sexism’ can kick in where decision makers mentally survey a pool of high potential talent and — whether consciously or unconsciously — make assumptions,” Emrich says.

We’re being deliberate when it comes to not just thinking about the usual suspects

To ramp up opportunities, some companies, such as ThoughtWorks, a global software consulting firm with 40 offices, are putting more pressure on hiring managers and executives to offer international roles to both men and women.

“One of the critical things is not just assuming [women] are not going to be interested because of family obligations,” says Rebecca Parsons, ThoughtWorks’ chief technology officer. “We’re being deliberate when it comes to not just thinking about the usual suspects.”

In 2012, the firm put more women through senior leadership programs than in previous years, and added two women-only programs to the leadership pipeline, deemed a first step to sending them abroad and ultimately take on global roles. A recent changeover in India-based executive positions meant one man and one woman was chosen for each opening in a sort of “conscious shift,” she adds.

Pursuing geographic mobility

Many firms are still not interested in using global roles as a way to integrate female leaders into succession planning, adds Catalyst’s Emrich. Despite evidence that global roles can often fast track an executive career, there’s little support in the way of relocating families, addressing individual concerns or providing opportunities for a trailing spouse. For instance, companies still tend to assume that women will ‘lean out’ when they have kids so they focus more on males who they feel they’ll get a return on investment from as the male career progresses.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as putting in place a policy or practice of asking — not assuming — both male and female high potential employees whether they’re geographically mobile,” Emrich says. While 60% of multinational firms say they want to create future company leaders through offering roles that require mobility, only 22% say they are looking to increase the amount of women in those same roles, according to a 2015 study from accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers.

At ThoughtWorks, Parsons says there’s no company quota for sending women abroad. Instead, the company is focused on having one-on-one conversations with female executives who are considering relocating globally. Some have negotiated a longer timeline for relocating family or asked for so-called flybacks to visit family back home.

“A lot of it comes down to having the individual conversations around what kind of support they might need in taking the role,” says Parsons, who is based in Seattle in the US, but has spent time in global roles in the UK and Africa and now mentors female leaders within the company.

Others are seeing a turning point. Even with the number of female executives working abroad stagnant, younger expat females are now equally split with male counterparts who start to live abroad. But 71% of millennial women say they want to work outside of their home country in their career, according to the PwC study.

With younger women moving in greater numbers, the hope is that the gender diversity of millennials living outside of their home country will trickle into the executive ranks, says Claire Tennant-Scull, head of content at the Forum for Expat Management, a London-based organisation that works with companies to promote expat hiring.

“They are probably not old enough or experienced enough yet,” she said. In a few years, “there may be more expat women rising through the ranks.”

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