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Home Page > Articles in English > Perception Is Everything


The following article was published in the New York Women in Communications' newsletter MATRIX (Spring 2007).


Culture Gaps and Gaffes — Women Working Abroad
Perception Is Everything

By Tekla Szymanski

It can be as subtle as a frown or as blunt as the refusal to shake your hand: Women traveling abroad are faced with the same culture clashes and linguistic and non-verbal barriers as their male counterparts in dealing with foreigners, but they also need to be aware of local gender conceptions and misconceptions that add to the confusion.

Masha Hamilton in AfghanistanThe number of American women doing business in foreign countries has skyrocketed. According to www.globalwomen.biz, 40% of U.S. business travelers are women. In order to anticipate how we are received and perceived as business partners abroad, know how foreign cultures treat their own women. Sometimes, all that is needed to navigate the unfamiliar maze of gender nuances is common sense, heightened sensibility, humbleness and tolerance. Sometimes you need to be prepared and outright diplomatic to recognize other cultures (as foreign and misogynic as they may seem) and to understand what is expected. In her book International Business: A Basic Guide for Women, Dr. Tracey Wilen sums it up as follows: "Negotiating effectiveness in the international environment is not based on an individual's negotiating style as much as on how the foreign culture initially perceives each gender should behave in negotiations."

Michelle Fanzo, VP for International Operations at ARZU, a not-for-profit organization that provides sustainable income to Afghan women by sourcing and selling the carpets they weave, has traveled frequently to Afghanistan. Her mantra is simple: "You got to see the similarities and not only the differences. It's easier to get women to trust you, because women have a global connection. Talk about your family." In a society that is based on gender inequalities, being a foreign business woman can be an asset, says Fanzo. "Business women are so foreign in Afghanistan that Afghan men don't know what to do with us. They can't categorize us, don't know how to treat us, and we become the 3rd sex — without being completely dismissed. You're the outsider and an abnormality, but you can turn that into your advantage. We can ever so slightly become a role model, until they start to recognize that women can do the job. But don't create gender jealousy. Show them the next opportunity and plant ideas. Change has to apply to them, without shunning them or harming their status in the community." How does Fanzo deal with the stark cultural differences? "I have a translator in Dari and English, and she becomes my cultural/gender translator as well. Differences, gaffes and misunderstandings have a lot to do with nuance." But not all patriarchic societies can be lumped together: In Burma, for example, unlike in Afghanistan, women can shake hands with men.

Masha Hamilton, a freelance journalist and novelist, has traveled extensively to Afghanistan and Africa. She, too, says that being a foreign woman in Muslim societies has its advantage, because she is able to talk to the women — which men often are not. "Being a woman eased things as a journalist, because I wanted to be unnoticed and less observed. But you need to keep covered in the Middle East. I attracted attention once when I was not entirely covered up during a visit to a cemetery and a sliver of flesh was exposed — a man came up to me and said very sternly "cover it!" On the other hand, in Afghanistan, I visited a poppy field and spoke to opium growers and asked if I could visit one man's home; there, I met a Taliban supporter, whom I could not have met with the same ease had I been a foreign man." In Africa, gender differences in non-Muslim dominated territories were less obvious, says Hamilton. However, "Nairobi has a high crime rate and as a woman you really need to be aware of you physical safety. There, I felt most uncomfortable and in danger."

In China, Japan and South Korea, foreign women will encounter female stereotypes that are less apparent at first. "Male dominance is strong," warns Mia Doucet in her article "Chinese and American Business Women: More Alike Than Different" (in: Minority MBA, winter 2007). "Women face many barriers and must work around them to succeed. If you are a woman doing business in these countries, the best way for you to prevail is to be patient and to curb the impulse to come on strong. Allow time for the Asian businessman to appreciate your expertise, humility, knowledge, ability and dependability. Working for a top-ranked firm, possessing impeccable credentials and having the hide of a rhinoceros will ease the process. A great sense of humor — which you keep to yourself because in Asia business is dead serious — will keep you sane."

Ivy Woo, a member of Asian Women Leaders and founder and president of Business in Asia Club at Baruch College, who has worked in Hong Kong, concurs. "The top positions in the major companies are dominated by Caucasian men. I am ignored. Hong Kong is an appearance-driven city for women; looks are important: You have to put your age and marital status in your resume and include a photo. And most important: As a woman, don't show too much skin and don't drink alcohol at business meetings. You just can't. Only the men can."

However, to the naked eye, Chinese women seem to have an edge over men — because there are so much fewer of them. Maybe as a nod to Communist times, women can be seen working side by side with men in traditional male occupations, like construction; and yet traditions of the old male-dominated culture surface in the so-called "tea lady" in Chinese offices. The tea lady is an "office nanny", who spends all day making tea and reheating food. During dinner with your Asian business partners, you will be expected to become the nanny yourself: "In Japan and China, I am supposed to serve my business partner — whom I am dining with after a business meeting — the food we ordered," says Woo. In Japan it is also vital for foreign female executives to carry business cards, because they are readily viewed as secretaries unless they hold an appropriate title. Women are initially ignored in business meetings as they are not perceived as decision-makers.

But even societies closer to us culturally, geographically and linguistically can pose challenges. While doing business in Germany, Fanzo admits, "I made a lot more mistakes than in Afghanistan, because I felt comfortable and thought the culture was similar. I wasn't bothering to pay attention. But they were more forgiving. You need to have diligence and be respectful. It's not just about business. It's all about showing respect for each other."

Reference books:
Do's and Taboos Around the World for Women in Business by Roger E. Axtell, Tami Briggs, Margaret Corcoran and Mary Beth Lamb

The International Businesswoman of the 1990's: A Guide to Success in the Global Marketplace by Marlene L. Rossman

Catalyst.org has published a report entitled "Different Cultures, Similar Perceptions: Stereotyping of Western European Business Leaders" (2006). A follow-up report was published at the end of 2007 and is available for purchase.

Web Sites:
www.expatwomen.com (international online support network)
"Blogs From Abroad" — Italy (PINK Magazine)
"Blogs From Abroad" — India (PINK Magazine)

Further Reading:


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