by Adam Kaminsky
Too often the reaction is the same. A woman brings up a pending international relocation and the first question that comes up is "where did your husband get transferred?"
While in the past this question may have been appropriate, as the song goes: The times they are a changin'. The role of women in international business is growing.
Working abroad is a great opportunity, but it is also fraught with challenges for anybody who undertakes it, and even more so for women.
One of the most significant challenges for women in international business is convincing the company to send them abroad in the first place. Despite the fact that more and more women are being considered for international assignments, there is still the misconception that women are not equipped to work in another country. Often companies believe these assignments are too risky or conclude 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.
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 best 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 expected. The unexpected behaviour of people leads to 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, individuals become acclimated to their new surroundings and begin to feel part of the culture, with their expectations matching the reality that surrounds them.
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 identify which are personal gender biases and which are 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 recommended that a local intermediary, who is almost always a man, 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 American culture. Women who are unaware of this cultural trait may be concerned that their counterpart's actions are inappropriate, unprofessional and can be construed 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.
For women with spouse or children, this could be the biggest challenge. Not only will they have to deal with culture shock, they will also have to help others work through it (even if they haven't). There are a lot of resources on tricks and tools to properly acclimate the family on an international posting - learning about the new country, finding an expatriate network, complete settling-in chores, establishing family rules - 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
- What other culture has influence in all aspects of Vietnamese life and its economy?
- What do the Vietnamese believe brings bad luck?
- What do the Vietnamese believe brings good luck?
- Why should you avoid pointing the sole of your foot at someone in Vietnam?
- In Vietnam, one should never touch someone's head, why?
- What religions are dominant in Vietnam?
- When the Vietnamese are given a gift, when do they open it?
- What flower symbolizes success and prosperity to the Vietnamese?
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Answers at the bottom of the page.
of the home, children and social calendar. However, often in the case of a woman on international assignment, the husband will also be working, so household management will fall back to the woman.
This issue of household responsibility must be discussed before embarking 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.
With women increasingly 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 who 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.