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Culture clash: How exporters can manage gender expectations

They say it’s a man’s world, but more and more women are participating in international business. How should exporters field their female talent when culture and gender expectations clash?

First the host company gets you well and truly drunk at the banquet, then it arranges a prostitute for the night. If this sounds like the beginning of a business trip nightmare, you’ll be shocked to learn that it is a real example of the socialisation that can take place in tandem with an international business meeting. This might be uncomfortable for businessmen, but catastrophic for a woman when a key part of doing business—the social stage—completely excludes her.

“Fortunately in many countries where there’s a lot of foreign investment, international travel, global multinational companies, that type of event has whittled away. Most are more extreme versions of what she might already experience in Australia: a man can drink too much and start singing risqué songs, women can’t get away with that,” acknowledges Dr Margaret Byrne of UGM Consulting. “There is a double standard, but it doesn’t do women any favours to be one of the boys.”

Raucous behaviour is just one of the traps that women need to avoid when interacting with their counterparts overseas, but fortunately one of the easiest to dodge. Byrne says women can often opt out in a dignified manner. “I always advise them to say ‘that’s enough for me’. If you think your host could take this amiss, make it a health issue, ‘it doesn’t agree with me’. By saying that, it doesn’t become a big social drama or a negative comment on your host. If you think the night is going to deteriorate, say ‘good night’ and leave. That’s going to be a better look for you as a woman than staying.”

New heights

Much harder to buck is the Australian habit of playing down one’s achievements. Female exporters, particularly younger ones, will often find it harder to establish authority that people in many countries afford men more readily. The key here is to understand what influences might be in play: it is not just a case of gender in the context of cultural difference; it may include professional status, the individual’s personality, as well as the culture’s tolerance for uncertainty.

Byrne uses Geert Hofstede’s National Cultural Dimensions to provide a guide for businesswomen heading overseas. These include a masculinity index, which indicates how a culture might view leadership qualities, and an uncertainty avoidance index, which shows how tolerant the culture is to risk. Together, this can point to areas where businesswomen may need to focus their preparation.

“If you’re doing business with a country that’s scoring high on masculinity and high on uncertainty avoidance, like Japan, you need to understand that [as a woman] you’re seen as high risk. These cultures will be more conservative in their ideas of what a suitable person with status might look like. In this kind of society, a women would be well advised to up her status.” In contrast, China has a fairly high masculinity score of 66 but a low uncertainty avoidance score, “which means they are more comfortable with doing things differently”.

Byrne says women can acquire status by emphasising their seniority, education, experience and profile. “You might have written introductions so people can see they’ll be dealing with a woman, but what a woman. We’d advise the woman to conduct herself in a way that plays up positional power. If you could attend your meetings with some colleagues who show deference to you, who carry your briefcase, pull the chair out for you, Japanese counterparts would note the esteem that you’re clearly held in by your own people. Small, non-verbal cues that your own people approach you with respect and deference encourages the counterparts to mimic that.”

Asian countries tend to harbour hierarchical cultures, which means the relationship will be based on comparisons. “They want to position you—how high you are, how equal, how different—so that they know how to relate to you,” says Dr Htwe Htwe Thein, senior lecturer in International Business at Curtin Business School, Curtin University. “They want to position people in relation to where they were educated, what kind of experiences they have had and how much money you earn and they will talk down, talk equal or talk up.”

By establishing authority, a businesswoman can avoid triggering local gender associations and create a third gender, Byrne says. “Foreign women, even in countries that are rather masculine in their ethos, can therefore be put in a different category. It’s almost as if there are three genders: masculine, feminine and foreign woman. You can end up with a distinct advantage because you’re different. They will treat you differently, they will not treat you the way they treat local women.”

Thein confirms this. “They give you a lot of concessions in terms of being from the West. They know that you’re coming from Australia and they know what the situation is like in Australia where men and women are equal, where there’s no gender discrimination.” She does note, however, that older women will tend to have an easier time than younger women because they can establish seniority and the perception of being more experienced more easily.

Relationship status

Also important in the establishment phase is finding common ground with your counterparts to make them more comfortable with dealing with you. “Find as many familiar links as possible in that pre-negotiation socialisation stage. A lot of people do that, especially if it’s a strategic, important link,” says Thein. “They want to know you, you want to know them. It’s personal and long-term, not transactional. They want to know you first before they decide whether or not they will do business with you. For that reason you don’t want to change staff all the time because they have invested in this personal relationship initially.”

One of the key advantages women have in international business is in their ability to build relationships more easily than men. Businesswomen should expect and embrace it, Thein says. “On social occasions,  they will start to ask about your intercultural awareness and experiences. That’s where you’ll say, ‘I know a friend from this country’, ‘I went to university with people from your country’; that says to them ‘she has knowledge about us, how we interact’.”

Don’t be surprised if they want to continue the social relationship beyond your business trip. “It can be quite personal: they might even ask to be your Facebook friend,” she says. “In a lot of cultures, there is not much differentiation between work and home. There can be a lot of effort and energy required to develop and maintain both personal and professional relationships at the same time, but it is expected by your host and it is very important. Women are a lot better placed to develop that than men.”

Byrne goes deeper and says women are better at picking up emotional cues that give context to the relationship and what is being discussed. Some of these cues can be easily missed, she says, especially in low affect cultures such as in Asia where feelings are kept in check, compared with high affect cultures like in Russia “where they make their views and feelings very plain through non-verbal signals”.

“I observed women’s ability, which was greater than men’s, to pick up micro-level cues,” Byrne says. “These things can be a fleeting expression of disapproval that passes across the face of an Asian counterpart in a negotiation and then the face has a bland, pleasant demeanour again. That momentary look of disapproval reveals something really important about them not appreciating a point that was being made at that time.” Byrne advises clients to include at least one woman on any negotiating team sent to Asia, as women tend to be “more sensitive to the nuance of what’s going on, and therefore what is potentially going wrong, than men”.

“It’s the difference between low context and high context cultures. English-speaking cultures are all low context: they spell the meaning out in words and the overall context is not carrying much of the message because almost all the message is carried in the words themselves. Across Asia we have what we call high context interactions where not 100 percent of the message is going to be spelt out directly in the words, a certain percentage will be carried by the context including facial expressions, non-verbal cues and many other ways of signaling meaning,” Byrne explains. “This is done to protect face. Indirectness has a very powerful and positive function in Asia. Australians need to do some decoding of what’s really going on and there’s evidence to suggest that women are rather better at that than men.”

Flexible females

Another reason to take women to meetings with international counterparts is their inherent ability to adapt to another culture’s way of doing things. Byrne researched this area and says women already have at least two styles of doing business. “I filmed men-only meetings, women-only meetings and meetings with men and women together. When professional women are meeting together without men, they adopt a different style from the style they use when they’re working in situations with men. Men use the same style in both configurations.”

This means women have an advantage when operating across cultures because they’ve already experienced different subcultures within Australia. “They already have two styles at least and it’s much easier to add a third or a fourth style to your repertoire when you already have two than it is to, as an Australian man used to operating only one way, add another. Some men might even think that their way is the only way.”

For all the challenges female exporters may encounter overseas, Byrne says men may actually find it more difficult if they don’t anticipate cultural differences. “A woman who is reasonably successful in Australia has already figured out how to manage rather a masculine society. If we send that woman to a country like Norway, which has a low masculinity score, she’ll find that she can relax a lot more because there isn’t such a blokey atmosphere,” she notes. “Australian men going to Norway can initially be seen as quite abrasive and they have to tone themselves down.”

It seems the key to successfully traversing the culture-gender divide is to acknowledge that as a woman you may be seen as different, and that can make you memorable, but as much as possible ensure your international counterparts aren’t distracted by that difference. After all, you’re there to build relationships, or close a deal.

“Some businesswomen who haven’t thought this through can have a ‘damn them, I’m not going to alter the way I behave’ attitude. They don’t restrain their dress to conform and that’s not sensible because it simply ends up being a distraction,” Byrne says. “There has to be an acceptance of the way things are done. You want to minimise distractions and move the focus to expertise and away from gender. Most women find they can pull that off.”

Five ways to become worldly:

1. Dress carefully. If in doubt, “err on the side of conservatism,” says Professor Mary Barrett, of the School of Management & Marketing at the University of Wollongong. “Don’t wear anything too low at the neck if you want to be taken seriously in business.” Short skirts are discouraged.

Dress can be an advantage or a disadvantage. “Every time I wore a red jacket, the Chinese side would say ‘this is a very good colour, it means good fortune for our joint partnership’. I made sure to wear that jacket for any important meeting. That’s maybe a small advantage because men can’t readily wear that bright red colour.

“In Japan, however, an American woman wore a bright red dress at a conference where she was a speaker. It horrified the Japanese because for them it’s a colour associated with sexual overtness.”

2. Accept a chaperone. In some countries, having a chaperone is compulsory for women, whereas in others it’s just a common provision by the host to ensure your stay is well attended. Barrett says in China her day off consisted of a schedule of activities accompanied by a translator and two young guards, which was usual for business guests, male or female.

At the University of Wollongong’s Dubai campus, however, she was escorted “to places where women would not normally go,” she says. “Because I was from somewhere else they recognised that the cultural norms were not the same.”

3. Understand and practise business protocol. Ensure your business card displays any prestigious titles (for example, Dr, Professor), your education and alma mater, and a role title that establishes the required authority you need to assure your counterpart they are dealing with a senior representative.

In hierarchical cultures the other side will have an order and a rank. Exporters would do well to learn this. “You as the woman may not be taken automatically as the most important person unless you sit at a place that indicates that,” Barrett says.

4. Curb your alcohol intake. “Be careful with alcohol,” advises Barrett. While drunken businessmen may be common, it is unacceptable for businesswomen to become drunk.

5. Press any advantage you have as a woman. “Women can ask more questions,” Barrett says. “We can afford to be enthusiastic and interested to an extent that men perhaps might be expected to be more reserved.”

Adeline Teohhttp://www.writertype.com.au
Adeline Teoh is a journalist with more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business, education, travel, health, and project management. She has specialised in business since 2003.