Misconceptions may limit women’s opportunities for international assignments

Working abroad is a great opportunity, but it is also fraught with challenges for anyone who undertakes it — especially for women. One of the most significant challenges for women in international business is convincing companies to send them abroad in the first place. Despite the fact that more women are being considered for international assignments, there is a misconception that it is very difficult for women to work in other countries. Often companies believe assignments are too risky or that women will not be accepted in the destination country.

This has proven to be largely unfounded. When granted the opportunity, women have succeeded in international postings everywhere from Kuwait to Japan, overcoming the various challenges along the way.

Culture shock

Undoubtedly the highest hurdle to clear for people going to another country to work is culture shock. This is true for men and women alike and it affects every aspect of an international assignment.

Interculturalist Craig Storti describes culture shock in his book The Art of Crossing Cultures. According to Storti, culture shock relates to disappointed expectations and, more specifically, to the discomfort felt when people don’t act or react as expected. The unexpected behaviour can create a sense of culture shock — a feeling of not belonging or of being threatened by the new culture.

Time and knowledge are the only cures for culture shock. With time, people become acclimated to their new surroundings and begin to feel comfortable with the culture; their expectations begin to match the reality that surrounds them.

Local customs

From greetings to meetings, every culture has its own way of living and doing business. Understanding these realities is essential to overcoming culture shock. The need to understand the dos and don’ts is important for everybody but, because attitudes toward women are still often very different in other countries, it is even more important for women doing business internationally.

In addition to observing how different cultures view the basics, like personal space and sense of time, women must also sort out personal gender biases from cultural differences. Businesswomen will often assume that a difference of perspective or opinion with their male counterpart is due to the individual’s gender bias, when in reality the difference is cultural.

For example, when doing business in Japan it is common for a local intermediary, who is almost always a man, to be used. A businesswoman may construe this as her Japanese counterpart being more willing to deal with a man, when in reality hiring a local “go-between” is standard practice for men and women alike.

The issue of personal space may also lead to confusion for women on international assignment.

For example, in Latin American countries people generally stand very close together and touch each other much more than they would in North America. Women who are unaware of this cultural trait may be concerned that their counterpart’s actions are inappropriate and unprofessional; they may even construe them as sexual advances. In a rare case, that could be true. But in most situations the same amount of physical contact would have occurred if it were two men in the same meeting.

The “third sex”

In many cultures, including Japanese, Chinese, Latin American and Italian, women are seen as keepers of the home, rather than workplace equals. But there is often a different standard for foreign businesswomen. Roger Axtell, author of a number of books on international business, says foreign businesswomen are seen as a “third sex” in some countries.

As such, foreign women are treated as equals in business situations, even in the most male-dominated societies such as Japan and some Islamic countries. Women gain this status through having a good position in their company, a strong educational background or a thorough knowledge of their product or business.

Status as a member of “the third sex” may help in a business setting, but it won’t change the way women are viewed by society as a whole. In some cultures men will be more aggressive, others will ask personal questions about marital status. The important thing to remember is not to be shocked. This is common behaviour in those cultures.

The best way to deal with the aggressive behaviour is to be confident and firm. If the woman is married, she should wear her wedding ring. And she will have to be very mindful of any behaviour that may be construed as flirtatious or showing interest in any way. What may be seen as harmless in North America, can be interpreted as being interested in furthering the relationship in other cultures. As for the sometimes inappropriate personal questions, it is up to the individual. A woman can answer them if she wants, or avoid them if she would prefer. But she should not appear insulted; it is part of the culture to ask these questions.

Family responsibility

Women with a spouse or children, could be the ones with the biggest challenges to face when relocating to another country. Not only will she have to deal with culture shock, she will also have to help her family work through it (even if she hasn’t yet been able to, herself).

There are many things that can be done to help a family acclimate to a new country during an international posting — learning about the new country, finding an expatriate network, completing settling-in chores, establishing family rules can help — but the most important thing is to stay positive.

In most of the literature about relocation it is assumed that the woman is the trailing spouse, in charge of the home, children and social calendar. Often in the case of a woman on international assignment the husband will also be working, so household management tends to fall back on the woman.

The issue of household responsibility must be discussed by the couple before they embark on an international assignment. As much as this type of friction can cause problems at home, the situation is magnified in a new and unfamiliar setting.

Getting a chance

With women increasingly being given the opportunity to work abroad, the path is becoming clearer for those who wish to follow. There will be more mentors, more stories and more literature on women as international workers, not just trailing spouses. For the women who are blazing the trail, the most important challenge to overcome is a lack of awareness. They must be aware of not only the culture of where they are going, but the manner in which women are viewed and treated.

Companies that have had the most success with women on international assignments have given them the chance to succeed by making them aware of opportunities that exist for women in international business, not just the barriers they must overcome.

Adam Kaminsky is the development associate at MALKAM Cross-Cultural Training, a consulting and training company that helps organizations succeed in the global marketplace by leveraging their cultural and linguistic diversity. He can be reached at (613) 761-7440.

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