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Helping women understand the cultural assumptions that drive business in foreign lands.


Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

Helping women understand the cultural assumptions that drive business in foreign lands

Both men and women can learn how to bow, kiss or shake hands effectively, but when it comes to global management, addressing deeper cultural issues is the challenge for both sexes. This challenge, however, is slightly more complicated for women than it is for men.

Most men will never have to experience flirtatious behavior or deal with sexual advances, nor will they need to defer power in a meeting, or go the extra mile to prove who they are in order to succeed while on a foreign assignment.

When I coach female global leaders, the most common question I am asked is:

Q: When I am traveling overseas on business or working on a global assignment in a foreign country, how do I handle flirtatious behavior and sexual advances?”

A: Begin by understanding machismo. Most people might think that this problem is a “women’s problem,” but it is not, it is a problem faced by both sexes, women, however, feel the negative effects of it more often than men.

In most Anglo Saxon cultures “machismo” means acting in a manly fashion so as to magnify the male role while diminishing the female role. In the other 90% of the world’s cultures, machismo has a totally different meaning. For those cultures, machismo is about female virtues, defending and protecting them VS male honor, displays of and enforcing it.

For example, in some cultures, the belief exists that whenever a man and woman find themselves alone, regardless of circumstance, they will be irresistibly drawn to one another. The man will be unable to restrain himself; the woman, unable to resist his charm. This has great implications for women when working on a foreign assignment and will determine if she works late at the office or if she’ll accept an offer to network or attend after work hour events.

The second most common question I am asked is:

Q: “How can I establish my authority when working overseas?”

A: For male leaders, the concept of authority is almost a given because they were born male, or hold titles of power. Female leaders, however, must go through a series of steps to gain the respect and admiration of others even if they hold titles of power. This involves more than understanding cultural workplace power and how to leverage it. It involves looking at the cultural attitudes and expectations of women in the society in which you are working in, so you don’t get blindsided.

In some cultures, men have a fraternity like attitude that is difficult to broach. It stems from centuries of learned behavior that women are to be respected as mothers and homemakers, not as business people.

In other cultures, women are to be seen and not heard. The idea stems from the age old concept that women should be creatures of beauty and admired for that trait. Hence, the concept of beauty pageants experienced in some cultures that is as popular to the locals as the world cup.

Establishing authority and fending off sexual overtures are only a few of the challenges and differences women experience while traveling to or living and working overseas. There are many other cultural assumptions that a woman must understand and manage in order to be respected while on a global assignment.

If you are a female working in the global arena or a leader who must develop a pool of female talent to send on global assignments I share the following:

  • Build awareness about your assumptions of the business world. Where and how do you view women in that space, are they support staff or do you see them as leaders who can hold power and delegate with authority?
  • How well do you understand the local environment in which you must lead? I’m not talking about the superficial stuff, or the how to do this or that. I’m talking about the deep levels of assumptions and expectations, the biases, the feelings towards and about women that exist in the local environment. Believe me they are there and you must become aware of them if you expect to succeed.
  • Look at the management and leadership style you hold and compare them to what you see in your local environment. How do the locals behave? Where can you improve? What do you need to change? How much or how deeply do you need to adapt in order to be successful? Are these differences acceptable to you and are they in alignment with your personality?

When it comes to the female leader, what men take for granted, women must work harder at achieving. For example, many times while attending meetings in a foreign country, it is assumed that if you are the man, then you are the one your foreign counterparts defer to, and address with the expectation that you, the male, hold authority to make decisions. However, if you are a female leader in the same situation, the local leaders will assume you have no decision making capacity. They display this behavior by looking for and addressing a male in your team. As a female leader in this situation, how do you handle it without losing your authority or worse, losing the deal altogether?

Prior to the meeting you prepare your colleagues by instructing them to defer directly to you, both verbally and with body language. This lets the other party know that you are the one in charge.

I once attended a business meeting with a male colleague. The leader we were meeting was top in the organization and from a high power distance country. He politely shook my hand, but immediately focused all negotiations and conversations towards my colleague. My colleague very diplomatically turned his attention towards me and deferred questions to me by saying, “Candida is the expert here and she is in charge of the entire program, I will defer that question to her so she can properly answer you.”

That was it; my colleague’s words, body language and actions let our potential client know that I was the person in charge, the decision maker and the expert. There was no loss of face or disrespect for anyone, the leader took the cue and understood how to proceed, he immediately pivoted the conversation towards me. My colleague listened patiently and intervened when I deferred the conversation back towards him.

In other words, at times you may need to speak through a male colleague while at other times; you can have your colleague defer the conversation towards you as is illustrated above. It all depends on the culture and the situation you are in.

Establishing authority as a female leader is not impossible; it just takes a bit of pre-planning coupled with the understanding of local behaviors, expectations and values. Even when armed with such knowledge, at times you may need to do some “on the spot adjustments.”

Knowing where to focus your attention and how to maneuver in your local environment is of utmost importance to success in the global market place, not only for men, but especially for women.

“Remember – you are a foreigner everywhere except in your own culture.” © 2018, Global Arrival, LLC