|Success Strategies for Women in International
by Sheida Hodge,
Managing Director, Worldwide, Berlitz Cross-Cultural
International business is still largely dominated by
men. While women account for 46% of professional and
managerial jobs in this country, they make up only 6%
of the expatriate work force.
Yet this situation is changing rapidly as more women
attain high level managerial positions and international
business becomes increasingly important for American
companies. Women themselves are increasingly interested
in foreign assignments, which are considered necessary
for high level promotions in many corporations. The
extension in 1991 of Equal Opportunity Laws to corporate
operations outside U.S. borders will also influence
the number of women receiving foreign assignments.
Despite the increasing number of women participating
in business overseas, there are still many misconceptions.
Although they have faith in women as managers and negotiators,
many corporations hesitate to send women overseas because
they fear they will be poorly received in male-dominated
cultures such as those in Asia, Latin America, and the
Middle East. Since higher level corporate positions
are held almost exclusively by men in these cultures,
it is often felt that women will not be taken seriously
or that they will not be granted the authority to do
their jobs. An American businessman attending one of
my programs in international business negotiations,
for instance, confided to me that women could be a “jinx”
during meetings with some foreign businessmen. Finally,
there are fears about women’s vulnerability to
sexual harassment in countries that have different social
codes and fewer legal protections than the U.S.
Despite challenges in international business, many women
are working very effectively in countries where the
local business culture is dominated by men. In The Global
Challenge: Building the New Worldwide Enterprise, Robert
Moran and John Riesenberger found that “female
managers report that the biggest barriers come from
within the corporation, rather than from situations
actually encountered during foreign assignments.”
If women establish their competence, experience, and
authority, they will be taken seriously and treated
professionally by foreign executives. These executives
realize that there are many female managers in American
companies, and in many developing countries, especially
in Asia, women are quickly gaining a strong foothold
in the job market.
Although gender discrimination and sexual harassment
do exist in other countries, sensational stories lead
to an exaggerated image. A recent LA Times article captures
the view many have of women’s lives overseas:
“Before Japan knew the term sexual harassment,
Yuko Watanabe put up with her boss’s back room
maulings as part of the job. The Tokyo hotel executive
would call Watanabe, then a 20-year-old information
guide, to the VIP lounge, cover her with kisses and
laugh as she struggled.”
Sensitivity about sexual harassment is spreading rapidly
around the world. The Wall Street Journal, for instance,
records the following admonition from an instructor
training Japanese executives for managerial jobs in
“Race”, he writes with a felt-tip pen on
the white board, “Color,” “Sex,”
“Avoid discrimination based on these things”,
he tells his charges, who sit at conference tables smoking
cigarettes. “But particularly watch out for the
gender hazard in the U.S.”
Corporations make an enormous investment in sending
and maintaining employees overseas. Education and training
that paints a realistic picture and imparts information
can help women to be more effective on overseas assignments.
To get our arms around the most important factors leading
to success in international business, I use the following
“Triple A Triangle”:
The three angles of this triangle work together to help
women deal with the new situations they will face in
international business as well as overseas assignments.
People from the traditional cultures, do not accept
strangers at “face value” as easily as Americans.
This may create special problems in cultures where women
are not generally viewed as authority figures. You need
to establish your authority both officially and unofficially
as quickly as possible.
When I traveled to countries such as China, Turkey,
Spain, and Brazil to visit factories and source products
as a part of General Electric Company’s countertrade/offset
programs, my official position, my clear and specific
charge, and the fact that I represented a prestigious
company gave me instant credibility and a great deal
of legitimacy. The fact that I was a woman was never
a disadvantage. I was always treated the same as my
male colleagues. In fact, I often felt that my familiarity
with their cultures and sensitivity to their ways gave
me a definite edge.
Communicate your credentials up front. A young woman
working overseas told me, “ I lose points when
I walk through the door. Businessmen tend to assume
that I don’t have the necessary background information,
and they try to backtrack and explain the basics if
I don’t establish first that I have a through
understanding of the subject matter.” Of course
the best way to establish your credentials is through
written information prior to the first meeting.
Get a letter of introduction, hopefully from the president
of your company or the director of your division. Make
sure the letter spells out your authority to make decisions
and your position in the corporate hierarchy. World
Trade Magazine, for instance, reports the case of Diane
C. Harris, vice president-corporate development at Bausch
& Lomb, Inc. whose CEO sends letters of introduction
on her behalf: “Partly because I’m a woman...to
add credibility just in case of questions.” Harris
also compiles a packet that includes the company’s
annual report, translated business cards that define
her title and an organizational chart illustrating her
In status-oriented cultures your titles, credentials
and background information are very important, and will
iron out any gender inequalities. The Japanese have
a saying, “the past is the clue to the future.”
Let them know where you fit in the scheme of things.
You need to let your hosts know your position with respect
to other members of your group. If they make a mistake
and treat you as a junior member, it can lead to embarrassment
or “loss of face.”
It is also important that women be given clear titles
and job descriptions. Dr. Sully Taylor, a professor
at Portland State University who has done extensive
research on women expats in Japan, observes that “the
vague title of ‘manager’ does not have any
really meaning for Japanese clients or suppliers and
may undermine their confidence in the woman’s
ability to make major decisions.”
A woman executive member of an offset negotiating team
sent to Korea by a large aerospace company, for instance,
received a great deal of attention as the only woman
on the negotiating committee. She was six feet tall
and blond, and made quite an impression by dressing
in a different set of clothes each day. (Korean businesswomen
on the other team wore uniforms.) After signing the
contract, the company left her in Korea to oversee the
administration of the negotiated offset agreement. Instead
of clearly communicating her authority to her Korean
counterparts, the company simply assumed they knew she
was in charge. With the vague title of “contact
administrator” she had trouble getting the status-conscious
Koreans to take her seriously. The director of the program
reflected later that this was a “lesson learned.”
Get the support of your male colleagues. If women are
treated with respect by male colleagues from their own
country, executives from the host country will follow
suit. Taylor, for example, reports the case of a woman
executive in Japan whose “U.S. male colleague,
when introducing her to a new client, never fails to
mention her highly successful legal work in New York
and her prestigious university pedigree.”
Be careful never to let the men in your group challenge
your authority in public. This can cause irreparable
damage to your credibility.
Demonstrate your competence. Establish early on that
you are knowledgeable and can get the job done.
Business Week, for instance, reports the case of Deborah
Lehr from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative:
Recalls Eastman Kodak executive Ira Wolf, once her boss
at USTR: “When we put her up against veteran Chinese
negotiators, they’d think ‘mmm, live meat.’
but it didn’t take long for them to realize the
appearance was deceptive.” Lehr...studies trade
arcana lest the Chinese test her. During talks on intellectual
property rights, she recalls, “I made a point
of getting to know their copyright laws so I could cite
them back to them.”
Scientists and aeronautical engineers have long been
puzzled by the case of the bumble bee. According to
the laws of science and engineering, the bumble bee
shouldn’t be able to fly. But the bumble bee doesn’t
know anything about engineering and science: he just
flies and doesn’t worry about it.
When Mardi Mastain graduated from college, she couldn’t
find a job in the U.S. After a short stint at the Chinese
Consulate in San Francisco, she decided to go to China,
learn Chinese, and look for business opportunities.
Ten years later, she has a successful consulting and
import-export business with offices both in Shanghai
and California. When I asked her if she had encountered
any difficulties as a woman in China, she replied that
being a woman and being young opened the doors and gave
her visibility on which she built relations of confidence
Another example of “go east young woman”
is the case of Katherine Stephan. After graduating from
college two years ago, she found the job prospects bleak
in the U.S. She decided to go to Hong Kong and look
for job opportunities. Although she had no money and
no journalistic experience, she was persistent and wouldn’t
take “no” for an answer, and in a few months
she landed an entry level position with the Far Eastern
Economic Review, a Dow Jones Publication. She comments,
“I am able to interview just about anyone--the
doors are there to open and people often encourage opening
them.” The only problem she reports is “being
asked out a few times after the interview is over.”
Stephan is also decided to join her company’s
all-Chinese-male soccer team. At first her team members
didn’t know how to react to her and ignored her
most of the time by talking in Cantonese and passing
the ball to one another. But when she showed a great
deal of interest in the game and complimented the good
players on their skill and knowledge, she was completely
accepted as one of the team. She says the most self
conscious part was during their first game when friends
and girlfriends of the other players showed up with
make-up, high heels, and short skirts and watched her
every move. She said that for a moment she “felt
like a Martian and a complete fashion faux-pas”
(though in fact she is tall and very attractive). When
they had their team picture taken, each player wanted
to take turns standing next to her.
Remember your advantages. Many corporations (and sometimes
women themselves) feel that women are at a disadvantage
in foreign cultures where business is dominated by men.
In fact, women have certain advantages over their male
colleagues. For the past five years I have surveyed
women who attend my programs at the American Graduate
School of International Management. The results show
that most women found their gender to be more of an
advantage than a disadvantage. Foreign executives are
often very curious about American professional women,
and women can turn this “visibility” factor
to their advantage.
According to Taylor and Rapier, women are also better
at building interpersonal relationships compared to
their male colleagues. “They tend to remember
and ask about personal matters, such as the graduation
date of a client’s son, and show appreciation
for small favors and courtesies.” This attention
to personal relationships can be critical in many foreign
Keep a positive attitude about your hosts. Enjoy and
learn about the culture of your host country. In her
study of women professionals working in Japan, Dr. Taylor
found that “women who perceive positive attitudes
in their Japanese bosses, colleagues, subordinates...are
significantly better adjusted to working in Japan.”
Remember that conduct which is considered inappropriate
in the U.S., may be the norm in another culture. This
does not mean you have to accept situations that are
uncomfortable to you. Most people will accept boundaries
and guidelines of conduct if you establish them.
If you are offended, remember to “keep your eye
on the ball.” Don’t lose sight of your business
goals. You are not an activist trying to change their
culture but a business person representing your company’s
interests. Americans are sometimes perceived as having
an air of superiority. This is especially true in the
case of women’s issues. Be especially careful
not to patronize women in other cultures. Once a Japanese
woman commented that they prefer being patronized by
Japanese men to being “matronized” by American
Be sensitive to cultural difference. Learn about your
hosts’ culture, but don’t be intimidated
by it. Your hosts recognize that you are from a foreign
country, and they will let small mistakes in etiquette
and courtesy pass by. When I was in China, I once asked
my counterpart to teach me how to say “excuse
me” in Chinese in order not to offend anyone.
“Because you are a foreigner doing business in
China,” he told me, “you are automatically
However watch out for those social customs which if
ignored may cause negative emotional reactions:
• In Asian countries, remove your shoes before
entering a private home.
• Bring odd-numbers of flowers as a dinner gift
to a German home.
• Avoid giving clocks or watches to the Chinese
as a gift.
• Never give things that cut to the Japanese.
• Don’t give gifts in groups of four in
Asian countries (four means “death” in many
• Don’t hand a red pen to your Chinese counterparts
• Avoid wearing a yellow shirt at bullfights in
Spain (yellow is a very difficult color in Spain).
Establish local relationships and contacts. An expat
wife who has recently returned from Poland, told me
that the American business community in Poland is an
“expat ghetto.” In her view, Americans were
uninterested in the local language or culture and rarely
ventured out of their own comfortable cliques. On the
other hand, Adda Million who has worked for U.S. AID
in the Middle East, Far East, Latin America, and Europe
for the past 30 years, attempts to make life-long local
friends in every country.
We don’t learn about other cultures through osmosis.
Culture is “under the surface.” Most people
explain away cultural differences as strangeness or
deficiencies on the part of the other group. We need
deliberate education and a desire to understand in order
to break through our own cultural conditioning to see
others as they see themselves.
Introductions. The handshake is an international business
protocol, though some men might let you initiate it.
In some countries (Japan for example) older men might
just bow without a handshake, and you can follow their
lead in these circumstances.
Business cards are an important part of exchanging courtesies
in some cultures. Remember to carry your business cards
in your suit in a card case rather than fumbling in
your purse. Especially in Japan make sure that you treat
business cards or promotional material with utmost respect.
For example make sure that you don’t place your
coffee cup or food on their material or write on them.
Proper Dress. You can never go wrong with a classic
Channel suit! But if that is outside of your budget,
choose clothes that are tasteful and high quality. Take
it easy on the red power dresses and the latest fads.
These may work in New York or Los Angeles, but they
are often inappropriate in conservative foreign cultures.
Longer skirts and higher necklines are a good rule of
thumb. The conservative rule applies to sightseeing
trips and entertainment outings as well: avoid bikinis,
halter tops, and short skirts or shorts.
Entertainment. A young woman who works for Rockwell
International was invited to an after dinner entertainment
along with her boss and several other men while on a
business trip to Korea. This included a visit to a Karaoke
bar with pictures of nude women projected on the wall.
She said that it didn’t bother her and she was
glad that she was included. It is evident that as more
and more women go along on business trips this kind
of entertain will fall by the wayside.
Entertainment is an essential part of doing business
overseas. Don’t be intimidated by going out, even
if the rest of the group is comprised of men. But use
good judgment and intuition. If you feel uncomfortable
with the men in the group or the kind of entertainment,
you are not obligated to go. Give a credible excuse
and bow out.
Decorum. Adapt yourself to local norms of behavior.
If you are naturally boisterous and outgoing, you should
tone yourself down a bit in Asian cultures. On the other
hand, if you are quiet and low key, you may need to
be more expressive or demonstrative in Spain or Italy.
Always maintain self-control and show patience and poise.
Don’t be offended if older men are paternalistic
or protective. If special respect is accorded to older
people in that culture, show them respect. Make sure
you do not offend older people in the organization,
even if you hold higher rank or status.
Future Trends. Women have come a long way in the last
few years. “Leadership qualities” are no
longer viewed as an exclusively male attribute--even
in countries where men are still dominant. Pakistan,
India, Turkey, and Malaysia, for instance, all have
women at or near the top of their governments. Education
has done much to bolster the leadership role of women
in the social fabric of traditional societies. The prevalence
of education and new technologies is rapidly changing
the situation of women all over the world. As John Naisbitt
comments in Megatrends Asia, “the new technology
But women in international business are still in the
minority, and this situation can sometimes be difficult.
An important way to combat this feeling of isolation
is to form networks and support groups. A good example
is the Foreign Women’s Association in Tokyo (also
known by the appropriate acronym FEW).
These groups can be an important place for women to
reinforce their identity as women and as professionals.
According to pharmacist Amany Bognanno, for instance,
“When I first walked into a FEW meeting, it was
real nice, because usually when you meet expats or the
wives of expats, the first thing they ask you is, ‘what
does your husband do?’ So it was real nice for
someone to ask me what I did for a change.”