How women in international trade can overcome cultural obstacles to succeed in any global market


Women in international trade

Women in international tradeOn the surface, this topic may seem obsolete. Is it still even necessary to prepare women for a separate set of business culture rules than their male counterparts?

It was only a few decades ago that Canada and its neighbors to the south held that men belonged in the workplace and that women should mainly be concerned with wifely and motherly duties at home. Women who did venture into professions were often subjected to being ignored, undervalued or at worst sexually harassed.

And as my own mother-in-law reminded me just last week as she questioned my choice of profession, it isn’t always men who perpetuate historical expectations of a woman’s role.

The good news is that the world is changing. Women have risen to the top of fields like science, politics and business in countries all around the globe.

Every generation of women seems to arrive into a world more open to their potential than the one before it.

Now for the practical approach. While going into global markets means being exposed to other cultures’ values and expectations, that doesn’t mean that we ladies can’t come prepared to deal with anything that comes our way. Here’s what I think you should know:

Take control of the situation when facing unwanted advances

Let’s tackle the most dangerous gender issue first. Very few women want to be propositioned (or worse) while traveling and doing business in another country. It’s incredibly awkward at best, and puts a burden of refusal on the woman. But this really does happen to women of a variety of ages and backgrounds.

The first advice I have is to avoid situations where you are left alone with one male counterpart at the end of an evening or outing. Plan ahead to so that you can stay with your colleagues and decide when you will leave to return to the hotel together.

NEVER let yourself become intoxicated in a business social setting. Ever. You always need to have your full wits about you to make smart decisions. To politely opt out of binge drinking (common in some parts of the world), simply say that you need to stop for “health reasons”, or simply that you’re “not used to drinking”.

If you are propositioned, remember that this may not be a professional taboo like it is in North America. He may not see this as an offending act. Keep your composure. Politely refuse while saving face for both of you. My fellow global jetsetter women often use fidelity to a real or imagined relationship or spouse as their reason for not accepting the offer for an interlude. This generally works.

Don’t let yourself become the “Invisible Woman”

The last time I heard of an “invisible woman” she had been on a trade delegation trip to Mexico. The Mexican delegation was comprised of men who felt more comfortable forming relationships with her male counterparts. She quickly realized that if she didn’t try to counteract their behavior, it would become a long and fruitless trip.

This woman interjected herself into conversations. She made her presence felt, while staying professional all the while. She also brought the issue to her male counterparts so that they understood that she was being culturally shut out of the conversations. This helped and soon she was generally accepted as well as the men.

Show you’re the boss to avoid the female discount

Dutch cultural anthropologist Fons Trompenaars famously studied how status is assigned in a culture. In many Western cultures, we accord status based on merit or what someone does and says. In much of the world, status is ascribed or given based on other factors such as a family name, gender, age, university attended, etc. A woman in some places will not be given the same level of status as her male counterpart because her ascribed status is lower.

All is not lost. To counteract this cultural phenomenon, there are a few tricks. The first is to come prepared with a letter from your company president stating your specific role and the level of your responsibility (financial, number of employees managed, etc.).

If this is an issue, then if at all possible, travel with at least one subordinate. Have the subordinate help you out by showing deference to you in front of your international counterparts. This submission can include letting you enter all rooms first, siting first, speak first, introduce yourself first, as well as asking your opinion before making a decision. All of this sends clear signals that you are the boss.

International business dealings may present some additional challenges for women, but that does not mean that we should not assert ourselves on the global stage.

Every year the climate for global business improves for women and our actions can continue to drive towards gender equity.

If you have additional questions about doing business internationally as a woman or other global business topics, please feel free to email me or read my 200+ articles on The International Entrepreneur website.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum for International Trade Training.

About the author

Author: Becky DeStigter, FIBP|CITP

Becky DeStigter is an International Business Consultant focused on helping B2B technology and professional services companies to become more globally competitive. She seeks practical solutions for growing companies’ international marketing and operational issues. Becky is based in Scottsdale, USA and works with companies worldwide.

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