By Tracey Wilen
Women in the Global Workforce
In today’s business world, women are a growing part of the domestic and
global workforce. It is estimated that worldwide about 70% of all
working-age women now work outside of the home. Despite this, discrimination
in the workforce continues to be a problem for women worldwide.
Discrimination takes the form of job segregation, unequal pay, lack of
training, lack of advancement, and exclusion from certain fields that are
considered “masculine.” Working mothers are particularly disadvantaged
since, due to lack of child care facilities, they are often forced to put
their careers on hold or accept lower paying jobs.
Patriarchies and Their Impact on Businesswomen
Millions of women live in societies where centuries of social and
religious laws, customs and traditions have created insurmountable barriers
to education, jobs, and even healthcare, and have deprived women of
their political and civil rights. It is important for the American woman
traveling on business to understand not only her own situation, but also
the situation of women in other cultures. It is often these cultural
and traditional biases that American women will face when conducting
business in foreign countries.
In order to understand women’s reception in business worldwide we need
to understand how cultures view the women in their own society.
Researchers Nancy Adler and Dafna Izraeli report in their 1994 review of 21
countries on four continents that, due to changing societal patterns,
there have been significant increases in women in management in the world.
The patterns they cite include favorable economic conditions,
supportive government policies, changes in family roles, and emerging support
systems. Despite these advances, these researchers also found that in
most countries men continue to control the economic and political power
and to dominate in professional management roles. Furthermore, they found
that in all of the counties they studied women faced obstacles which
- Stereotypical perception of women’s abilities and qualifications
- Traditional attitudes toward women’s family roles
- Women’s minimal access to the social networks from which companies
recruit managers and executives
- Broadly-based discrimination against women
These researchers report that explanations for these barriers to
women’s progress worldwide have varied. They summarize four perspectives on
why women are underrepresented in management worldwide:
1. Men’s characteristics and behaviors are viewed as the norm for
effective managerial performance, and it is perceived that women do not
display these characteristics, and thus have been excluded from managerial
2. Women’s own limitations inhibit her success in management by causing
her to choose lower-ranked or career-limiting positions within the
firm. Thus, firms offer men more opportunities to gain power, prestige and
monetary rewards, leaving women underrepresented due to the uneven
distribution of women and men in key roles.
3. Organizations have built-in assumptions about gender which explain
why women are underrepresented and underutilized in management. This
perspective suggests that gender discrimination is embedded in managers’
basic assumptions about society, the organization and how it should be
4. Men who, for reasons cited above, have been put into privileged
positions within the firm do not want more competition than they already
have. Men at each level of the hierarchy have the power to control the
organization’s rules at that level, including its criteria for promotion
and, thus, who enters and who does not.
But there is good news too. Despite these powerful and longstanding
patterns and perspectives, these researchers (Adler and Izraeli) predict
that global competition will drive out these archaic patterns of under
representation, underutilization and skewed distributions of women in
management, and, in fact, they believe that this change is starting to
Women’s Lack of Cross-Cultural Preparation
The lack of training for personnel on expatriate assignments has been
highlighted by many researchers as a problem common to most firms who
send personnel to other countries. Many of the difficulties encountered
are due to employees’ ignorance of the foreign culture they are
visiting. Cultural training for employees on shorter-term assignments is almost
non-existent. Therefore employees are either sent to other countries
without any formal preparation, or they train themselves by reading books
available on the commercial market and, if time permits, take a
language class at the local college or adult education center.
Women preparing for such assignments often face an even more
precarious situation than their male colleagues because of the traditional
gender barriers they may face in countries outside of the U.S. These
businesswomen are frequently not aware of the discrimination they may face,
and are often left to fend for themselves unless otherwise advised by a
knowledgeable female colleague.
Even the commercial guidebooks that businesswomen may turn to may be
misleading. Most books in this genre were written by men and either do
not address women’s particular issues in international business or,
worse, they suggest that women should not even be sent on foreign business
assignments due to role differences which these men perceive to be
unconquerable obstacles. In contrast, my own research (1992, 1993, 1995,
1997, 1998) indicates that women can be successful in international
business, despite the variety of viewpoints they encounter around the world.
Specifically, my research has demonstrated that establishing
credibility during the initial stages of business is one area that businesswomen
find critical to their success.
Establishing Your Credibility
For men, credibility is often derived from their gender and their
status in the company. For women, credibility is more often derived from
their individual skills. Women report that they often have to work extra
hard to establish credibility because of their gender.
Some women explain:
When I conduct business in most countries I am consciously aware that
my male colleagues have more credibility than I do, just because of
gender differences. In most countries women are not expected to have
significant positions of authority, so I am frequently viewed in the same
way. I am first assumed to be an administrator, not the decision-maker in
the group, whereas my male colleague is first viewed as the manager or
decision-maker. I feel I have to work doubly hard to establish my
credibility before I can effectively conduct business and I’m aware that I
need to do this immediately so that the business can start. (Chicago)
When I travel outside the U.S. for the corporate office, I am viewed as
foreign first, and female second. However, I feel I am still met with
some degree of skepticism as to what my role is and how much authority I
have for the corporate office. Due to this, I take extra steps to make
sure that the proper introductions are made in advance to limit
concerns that men might have about my credibility. (Los Angeles)
As a woman business owner I realize that I am not the norm in many
countries. Therefore I have to develop methods by which to establish my
self and my company as credible for my foreign business associates. This
requires preparation and advance communication about my firm, our
success and our viability -- perhaps more than is required for men who run
their own firms. (New York)
Here are some pointers for establishing credibility:
- Be visible. Attend and host meetings between your company and your
international counterparts whenever possible. International travel is
often associated with decision-makers in a firm, so being present adds to
- Introductions are important, particularly for women. If you are doing
business with a firm for the first time, have yourself introduced by a
higher-ranking person in your company who already knows the people with
whom you will be dealing.
- If you cannot have someone introduce you, ask a higher-ranking person
in your company to send a fax or written correspondence in advance,
outlining your title, responsibilities and background.
- Make sure your business card indicates a distinctive title such as
“Manager” or “Director” so that your position can be clearly understood.
If there is any doubt about your title, it may be automatically assumed
that you have a lesser role than other members on your team.
- Some women wear a school ring or a graduate school pendant to subtly
advertise their background. Others wear corporate pins designating
tenure, thus demonstrating their level of experience.
- In general, foreigners will often look and respond more to the men on
your team than the women. This is because there are fewer women in
executive positions outside of the U.S. Prepare for this by advising your
colleagues of tactics that will help you and the other female members,
including making seating arrangements that will place you in a position
- If someone appears confused about your name and rank, offer him
another business card, even if you have already given him one. This is a
subtle way of reinforcing your title and ensuring acknowledgment of your
participation as an active member at the meeting
- Women should lead business discussions where possible. If there is
only one woman and everyone is of equal rank, let the woman take the lead
to help establish her credibility.
- A female team leader may experience a problem establishing her
credibility unless team members defer to her as the authority figure on the
team. American men need to be aware that their tendency to jump in and
answer questions, especially when a woman is speaking, undermines her
authority and the team’s effectiveness. Women should advise team members
not to answer questions directed to her and to otherwise defer to her
whenever appropriate. A good response when asked a question that should
be directed to a female colleague is: “Jane is the best person to
answer that question.”
- Be professional. Present yourself in a sincere, confident,
professional manner, both in appearance and speech, to create a good first
impression. Be yourself. Do not come on too strong, but don’t defer when it
is appropriate for you to respond. Deferring to age and position is,
however, always acceptable for both sexes.
- Be aware of women’s roles in other countries. If you understand where
women are in their own corporate environment it will give you insight
into how the culture may perceive you.
The Role of the Manager
Managers can be very effective in international business by helping to
enhance their team’s credibility. The manager can introduce the staff
members by title and outline their areas of expertise, act as moderator
to refer questions to the appropriate team member, and highlight the
In particular, managers can help in the following ways:
- It is important that all team members, including management,
understand their roles at the meeting and, more importantly, that they do not
act out of role. If one of your colleagues is acting out of role, call
for a break to explain how the group loses effectiveness when it is not
- As a woman, you should advise management that your personal
credibility may be jeopardized if your role is undermined, and that this could
hinder the success of the team at any follow-up meetings.
- Managers can help enhance the credibility of female teammates by
reinforcing their authority during the meeting. For example, if a woman is
not receiving the appropriate respect, the manager may once again bring
attention to her role and authority.
About the Author:
Tracey Wilen is Author at http://www.globalwomen.biz/