In person, anyone can tell I’m female, but online my name can be mistaken for a male. Sometimes I receive invitations for speaking engagements addressed to Mr. Morrison. Generally, I call and gracefully inform them that I’m a woman, and they laugh or apologize. It’s no issue. But there have been odd occasions when my gender mattered. In one instance, I was actually bluntly turned down by a conference coordinator for being the “wrong” sex! Bizarre, particularly when one considers where it took place—Silicon Valley, USA. A place where lawsuits run wild and free.
In some other countries, however, his behavior would have been both legal and commonplace. In those environments, being female means you must carefully orchestrate your business and social activities to protect your credibility.
The Asian challenge Asia can be a challenging environment for women executives. According to Ms. Joanna Saavides, Former President of The World Trade Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it can be extremely important for women to present a knowledgeable and competent image in Asia—particularly in Japan, a very competitive environment. Some years ago, she held a responsible position at a factory in a rural area outside of Tokyo. Initially, there was a lot of resistance both from the Japanese factory workers and from a transferred male executive who reported to her. Things came to a head one day when he exploded during a meeting, stating that he had had enough, and that he wanted to leave the project halfway through. In front of everyone he blasted at her: “You’re the boss, you handle it!” She affirmed: “Yes, I am the boss, and we have the capability to achieve these goals.” She calmly stated the way it would be done and worked through the issues with the team. After her effective management of that incident, she received far more cooperation from the entire staff—both Japanese and American. “If something goes wrong during an international assignment, I think what works is competency. It can take some time for people to determine you are qualified, but stay professional and be patient. Never be disappointed and don’t panic at problems. Just think things through to achieve your goals.”
Pay attention to me Another issue that female executives encounter abroad is being ignored in meetings. Many friends and clients have related horror stories about being the only woman present in a meeting, and trying to manage a sales call or negotiate a contract. Unless you prepare correctly, clients may completely ignore you, from the initial address to the room (“Good afternoon, gentlemen…”), to the Q&A directed solely at your male coworkers or employees. Cathy LeRoux, Program Manager with Sabre’s IT department, relates a specific instance: “I was in charge of the meeting (a fact-finding visit), but the customers directed all their questions and responses to my male counterpart. After a half dozen rounds of, I asked a question, the customers responded to my male coworker, then I asked the next question, the clients eventually understood that I was the one they needed to address.” Of course, you can brief your male colleagues on appropriate behaviors before you step off the plane. For example, if a client initially only asks questions of my male associates, they just turn to me and say, “Well, Terri, what do you think?” It may seem a bit ham-handed, but it works. Mary Fox, Program Manager at HP, offered the following tips to establish credibility in work situations: “Show you know the topic under discussion. You do not want to be seen as an assistant (particularly in Japan), but as a peer. Also, NEVER start a sentence with, ‘I’m sorry…,’ unless you really have something to apologize for. Women tend to use that expression inappropriately and it can make you look weak.”
Difference of interpretation Be aware that there are a multitude of female/male behaviors that can be interpreted differently in various countries. Cultural traditions vary, and perceptions of western women are different than indigenous females. In Tokyo, male colleagues will probably treat you differently than male coworkers in Toronto. Sometimes people do not know how to handle us. Even our body language is completely opposite from their traditions. Eye contact is intermittent or non-existent between the sexes in many cultures. If you look a man right in the eye and hold your gaze steadily (which is expected in the United States), that may easily be misinterpreted in countries like Mexico, South Korea or Morocco. Appropriate attire is also somewhat difficult to master. For example, a red suit is not that unusual for female executives to wear in the United States, but according to Herbert S. Ushewokunze VII, a consultant for U.S.-Africa Business Development, a woman in red can be interpreted as a tart in parts of Africa. There go the red shoes too, I suppose. Security issues for women business travelers would go on for pages, so we shall leave that topic—along with the stories on being searched at the airport—for another day. But consider safety from every angle when working internationally, from the moment you plan your trip to your return home. In a perfect world, an executive’s gender—like her race, religion or age—should be irrelevant in any work-related event. However, since we don’t live in Utopia, there will always be some aspects of our jobs that involve extra adaptations or sensitivities because of the differences among us. Finally, I’m reminded of another entertaining scenario that occurred two years ago, at a luxurious resort where I had been booked to speak to a meeting of CEOs. Standing at the podium, I waited for the Executive Director to read my brief bio to this elite group. I listened to him clear his throat and begin, “Good evening, gentlemen. Before I introduce our distinguished speaker, Terri Morrison, I’d like to ask her a brief question…Ah, Terri, did you hear the one about the blonde…?” Actually, I’m more of a redhead