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Summer issue

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Rainbow families: a neglected area in global mobility

by | Mar 19, 2024

Traditional global mobility refers to heterosexual couples and their accompanying children. But today, sexually diverse parents and children make up an increasing proportion of people undertaking international assignments. Dr Sue Shortland explains why employers need to consider the special needs of rainbow families.

There is a lack of data on the composition of the labour force in respect of sexually diverse minorities. However, estimates suggest that people who are LGBTQ+ comprise around ten per cent of the workforce. The labour force participation rate of LGBTQ+ individuals is also estimated to be higher than for heterosexuals and thus this group forms a valuable talent pool.

People representing sexual minorities are identified as an underutilised resource in expatriate research. Yet they can provide economic benefits to employers and host countries. Indeed, research shows that greater inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals has positive benefits for economic development.

Research also indicates that family issues often outweigh career concerns when individuals make employment choices. It is unsurprising therefore that LGBTQ+ individuals may opt for safer domestic careers rather than open themselves and their family members up to potential stigma and discrimination abroad. This is wasteful of organisational talent and damaging for the careers of sexually diverse minorities. This can result in vertical segregation and pay gaps for this minority group.

Action to support the inclusion of sexually diverse minorities is also important. This is because heterosexual expatriates may have LGBTQ+ family members and be unable to undertake accompanied international assignments unless employer support is forthcoming. Rainbow families are therefore an important consideration for employers in widening their international assignee profile.

Prejudice and discrimination

Social change is leading to greater recognition of the LGBTQ+ community globally. Same-sex marriage and partnerships are recognised in an increasing number of countries. While legal changes and greater social acceptance have reduced direct discrimination, LGBTQ+ individuals and rainbow families still experience considerable prejudice and both covert and overt discriminatory treatment. This is particularly the case for transgender people – both employees and their family members. Disclosure of sexual identity is not a matter of choice for transgender individuals as concealment is unlikely. This will also have ramifications for relocating abroad in terms of passports needing to match gender identity.

Widening assignment diversity

Action to widen assignment diversity has tended to concentrate on the selection and deployment of LGBTQ+ employees. This is unsurprising as it is the workforce that attracts employer focus when considering diversity and inclusion initiatives. However, global mobility involves the whole family. This is why organisations need to broaden their understanding of the support required to include assignees’ family members.

Dual-career couples have been a focus of employer attention for many years, with efforts made by organisations to support working spouses/partners of both heterosexual and same-sex couples. However, family support has tended not to look beyond this and consider accompanying children and potentially other integral family members.

Action needs to be taken to support global rainbow families. However, it must be recognised that this can be fraught with difficulty. For example, disclosure is needed to provide targeted support, but rainbow families may be hesitant or unwilling to disclose family members’ sexual identity fearing stigma and discrimination. Even if an individual is willing to disclose their own sexual identity, they may be unwilling to do so in respect of their children.

Supporting children

People work best when they can bring their whole, authentic selves to their employment. Hostile work and community environments are not conducive to effective, efficient and productive employment and family life. There is little reported on how parents who are part of a same-sex relationship can support their children abroad to ensure their safety, security and happiness. There is also little research on how children in rainbow families and those who identify as sexually diverse navigate their international school and community environments. Nonetheless, employers have a duty of care to their employees and accompanying families, and need to offer support even when the nature of their identity is not disclosed.

Children play an important role in parents being able to access resources in the context of global mobility. Friendships and social support, for example, can flow from relationships developed between parents who build networks through the school community, helping to build their sense of belonging. Support to help global rainbow families become part of social networks can be helpful in developing strong relationships that can underpin feeling welcome.

Practical support

Organisations must ensure that their workplaces are safe and welcoming places to work and where individuals can be their authentic selves. This is complex in a global environment where local cultural norms and societal actions are different from the home country. Managing home and host country tensions is difficult. Employers must act within the local legal framework while building an inclusive environment.

Risks must be assessed before rainbow families are relocated, preparatory training given and support systems developed that go beyond the assignee to encompass partners and family members. It is important to address both real and perceived threats.

Policies must be flexible and responsive to address rainbow families’ unique situations and the host country context. Networks and employee resource groups provide valuable sources of support. Assistance in obtaining visas for accompanying family members should also be given.

Assistance may also be needed to access healthcare, education and training locally. Emergency evacuation plans must be in place for the whole family. Besides preparatory support interventions, ongoing support is required too. Help with adjustment and with accessing local resources during the assignment can also be given.

It is important to recognise that families are unique and so a flexible approach is needed to address individual needs. Employers will benefit from understanding the challenges faced by rainbow families and the actions that can make their assignments successful. Sharing of organisational practice is therefore valuable as organisations can learn a lot from each other in managing diversity and inclusion in this context.