San Jose Business Journal
From the August 4, 2000 print edition
Business hurdles often even higher in other lands
Susan Zaraysky Contributing Writer
Women face many obstacles in the domestic business world, but the international scene can be a tougher and more complicated battlefield.
How do U.S. businesswomen fare in countries where the women’s movement has yet to be born or is in a nascent stage?
Traditionally in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, domestic roles dominate women’s lives, and women generally can’t expect to attain professional positions as often as their counterparts in North America and Europe.
Janet Tan, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and president and CEO of VoiceBrowser, a voice dictation system for Asian medical professionals, ran into discrimination while working as an engineering consultant in South Korea in 1992.
The dearth of female Korean engineers made her Korean (male) hosts uncomfortable with her presence. “I had to use the men’s changing room because there weren’t any for women,” she recalls. “Even though the manager spoke English, he did not speak to me directly and opted to communicate through the interpreter.”
In Taiwan, however, Tan had a different experience. “Democracy in Taiwan is making changes in society. The vice president is female and so are half of the government ministers.”
Although most top positions in companies are still held by men, women are reaching high-level positions in Taiwan through family ties.
Donna Sessions, managing director and co-founder of Business to Business Marketing, a Silicon Valley-based international marketing consulting firm, says her Japanese colleagues came to respect her because they ascertained how her own team from the United States valued her. In Japan, Ms. Sessions recommends that “one needs to exude a level of expertise” to be taken seriously.
Machismo and male preference is prevalent in most Latin American countries and can hinder the comfort zone of women unaccustomed to dealing with such a society.
Prior to her current position as partner relations manager at Ariba, Lisa Sharon Morel worked throughout Latin America, including long-term assignments in Mexico and Argentina. Ms. Sharon Morel had to acclimate herself to the attitudes of her male colleagues in those countries.
“I tried not to let some of the machismo bother me, and actually tried to accustom myself to it (i.e. not making a big scene when asked about my age, or get upset publicly about sexual jokes or physical contact). I think I ended up being valued in the end.
The Middle East
Ms. Sessions worked for Mobil Corp. in the 1970s and conducted business in Saudi Arabia, where she had to work through the male colleagues on her team and even had to sit in another room while the men negotiated with the Saudis. Her physical separation notwithstanding, Ms. Sessions believes the Saudis learned to esteem her when her male colleagues had to leave the meeting room to consult with her.
In Saudi Arabia, a conservative Muslim country, women must be fully covered and wear veils, which have only a small slit for their eyes. Attempting to be as unprovocative as possible, Ms. Sessions dressed very conservatively and stayed in the hotel during most of her stay, leaving only to attend meetings.
“I know of American women in the Middle East who will stay in their hotel, communicating with their colleagues by cellular phones instead of actually going to meetings,” she says
Keys to success
Adapting to another culture’s gender roles can be daunting, but women must be willing to change their mind set and approach, according to women who have been through the experience.
“You can’t overreact to negatives and don’t look through U.S. eyes. Always seek options,” recommends Ms. Sessions.
A first step is to grasp special treatment as opportunities to enter into the confidence of the foreign male colleague. For example, Ms. Sessions suggests that “If a man opens a door for you, take the time to make a personal statement to him.”
Women’s proclivity to be sociable proves vital in bridging the cultural gender divide.
U.S. business culture does not place as much emphasis on personal contacts as the cultures in some other countries, and U.S. businesswomen can try to use their social skills to foster and strengthen business relations.
“I think the success really depends on how well you can build relationships, especially in Latin America, where they are really important. Women can be super successful in this arena,” says Ms. Sharon Morel.
“As a woman, you have to work twice as hard as men to be considered equal,” Ms. Tan and Ms. Sessions agree. Despite the obstacles, both encouraged women interested in international business to believe in themselves and to take risks.
Ms. Zaraysky is a freelance writer based in Cupertino. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org