New Study Shows More Women Being Sent on International Assignments

Published: Apr 22, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By AMA Staff

More females are being sent on international assignments than ever before, according to a new survey by Mercer Human Resource Consulting. But they are far less likely to be accompanied by a partner than male assignees. The global survey covers over 100 multinational companies with nearly 17,000 male and female international assignees.

The Mercer survey showed:

  • Asia-Pacific reports the greatest rise in number of female assignees
  • 15% of companies do not send females to hardship locations
  • Female expatriates are far less likely than males to be accompanied by their partners on assignment
  • 12% of companies say they have female expatriates who are single parents
  • Two-thirds of companies (66%) provide no incentives or support to help partners settle in the host location

Companies in Asia-Pacific said 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 companies (55%) expect the number of female assignees to continue to increase steadily over the next five years, while 35% believe the number will remain the same. Just 4% 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 Yet many companies’ policies are outdated and do not reflect the changing profile of their expatriates, so assignees’ requirements are dealt with on a case-by-case basis,” said Ms.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% of companies said they would not send women to hardship locations, such as the Middle East.


Female expatriates are more likely than males to leave their partners at home when on assignment. While 57% of companies said the majority of their male assignees are accompanied by a partner, just 16% said most of their female expatriates are.

Female expatriates are also less likely than their male counterparts to have a partner prior to going on assignment. While 74% of companies said the majority of their male assignees had partners before going on assignment, only 25% of companies said this was the case among female expatriates.

“Studies suggest partners of successful women also tend to have high-powered careers. When a woman is offered an international assignment, her partner may be less willing to make career concessions to accompany her,” 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.”

Support for partners

Two-thirds of companies (66%) provide no incentives or support to help partners settle in the host location, the survey found. Where support is available, it is usually only given when specifically requested. For example, only 7% of companies offer partners information on the local job market, though 37% said they would provide it if asked.

“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.

Single parents

In the survey, 12% of companies said they have female expatriates who are single parents, yet only 4% provide additional support to this group of assignees.

“Expatriate programs 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,” said Ms. Sonsino.

Mercer Human Resource Consulting is a global leader for HR and related financial advice and services, with more than 15,000 employees serving clients in more than 180 cities and 40 countries and territories worldwide. For more information, visit

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.