Based on my decades of personal experience working in international settings as an employee and later as a consultant, I have learned many do’s and don’ts as a woman. From the common challenges of juggling motherhood and work due to frequent travel to having our voices heard at the meeting table, women working in global environments face increased hurdles that make it even more difficult to garner respect and stay balanced.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I’m sharing some of my personal tips and those of many successful female executives I have interviewed over the years on strategies to navigate gender issues in the global work environment.
- Beware of different greeting standards. In many countries, it is taboo for men and women to touch. For example, when working with people in Middle Eastern countries, placing your right hand over your heart in greeting will not only be culturally-appropriate, but allow you to avoid the awkwardness when someone of the opposite gender refuses to shake your extended hand. Similarly, that little air kiss on the cheek is the norm in many Mediterranean and Latin American countries and should not be viewed as a sexual advance.
- Establish your credentials up front. It is common for men to be dismissive towards women in many business settings, particularly if a woman is young. One executive, who worked many years in Africa, even let her hair go gray to establish more credibility. Communicating your position and where you stand in the decision-making process to your international counterpart will help defuse assumptions and re-align expectations for the meeting. If necessary, engage one of your male colleagues to advocate on your behalf by deferring to you, thereby establishing your authority.
- Don’t be afraid to use your voice. I have heard hundreds of stories of women whose ideas or input is disregarded during meetings. Be mindful when this happens and be sure to reinforce the message by continuing to speak up—for yourself or others—and insist you are heard. Being a change agent is a team effort and women advocating for each other can help ensure that their voice is resonant.
- Understand different interpretations of non-verbal cues. Making direct eye contact when speaking with others, very prevalent in many Western countries, can be misinterpreted across cultures where this may be sexually suggestive or viewed as an aggression. One woman I interviewed even recounted being bitten by a group of villagers when on mission in a developing country that had strict protocols around making eye contact with someone of the opposite gender. Similarly, be sure to do your cultural due diligence around appropriate dress as something as innocuous as wearing a sleeveless blouse could be taboo and elicit unwanted attention.
- Be firm with your boundaries. In many parts of the world, social entertainment after hours is common to build business relationships and may involve lots of alcohol and endless toasts. Be sure that your glass is never empty and when someone attempts to fill it and gently place your hand over the top provides a clear message of your limits.
- Don’t back down. Many women I have interviewed over the years reported attempted intimidation or deferential treatment that minimized their knowledge or expertise. When I worked in Paris in my 20’s, a male colleague once flirtatiously asked me if I was doing my “little work” to which I simply asked him the same question, much to his surprise. Avoid hiding in the shadows and confront the issue, even if you need to respectfully contradict someone or put them in their place. Many women described the satisfaction they received when they refused to give up but instead boldly challenged the status quo.
While working across cultures always requires more patience and agility, women, in particular, often need to prepare more rigorously for cultural differences and establish clear messages on what is or is not acceptable. Finding that balance of being authentic and recognizing that we can only change our attitude and behaviors and not others’ perceptions is the key to our global success.