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Success Strategies for Women in International Business

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 the U.S.:

“Race”, he writes with a felt-tip pen on the white board, “Color,” “Sex,” “Religion.”

“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”:


Attitude Adaptability

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 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 hierarchical ranking.

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 and trust.

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 countries.

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 women.


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 excused.”

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 Asian cultures).

• Don’t hand a red pen to your Chinese counterparts to write.

• 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 is gender-blind.”

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.”

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