News & Insight
September 2003

Are Women Better Suited Than Men For International Assignments?

Women who take on international assignments have long been a rarity, but that is rapidly changing as more companies expand their global business and more women fill the ranks of upper management.

How do women fare in this role -- especially in areas like Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, where males dominate and the social mores often relegate women to menial roles? Research has shown that women not only are adept in conducting international assignments, but also actually are likely to have advantages over men in several key areas, including emotional intelligence and cultural awareness.

"Women score high in emotional intelligence because they are excellent at reading body language, they are more intuitive and they can read between the lines," says Diane Simpson, Ph.D., a member of WJM Associates' coaching faculty who has helped managers from more than 100 countries to work effectively across cultural borders. "They are also more self-reflective and look to see how their behavior affects others."

A global mindset is another asset that women managers are likely to possess. "This is having a true cultural awareness," says Simpson. "Women are more willing to learn foreign languages, to pay attention to the hidden dimensions of differences and to have a curiosity about cultures. As a result, women are more likely to feel comfortable in culturally ambiguous situations."

Knowing the language and customs of a country can set a very positive tone from the outset. At the same time, it's not wise to do everything in a country the way people there do, cautions Simpson. "Women are more likely to realize that when in Rome, you can't act like a Roman, you have to act like a smart foreigner, which is to know when to adapt and when not to. After all, if you try to become too much like a Roman, which Roman do you emulate -- the taxi driver or the mayor? Knowing which things you pay attention to and which you do not is where having a global mindset comes in."

Many women can be at a disadvantage on the international front because they may lack the self-confidence to weather the stress, the ambiguous environments and the strenuous demands of the situation. They can learn to project self-confidence, says Simpson, by techniques such as speaking forcefully when appropriate and avoiding the use of qualifiers.

Another disadvantage facing women is that there are many locations in the world where they are not taken seriously or where there are strictly observed cultural customs to overcome. For example, in Mexico City it is customary for women not to go out to restaurants by themselves. Faced with this situation, one woman on assignment there developed an expertise in home entertaining in order to socialize with her Mexican clients.

When women are dealing with countries where hierarchies are important, it's vital to send out signals that proclaim, "I'm the decision-maker," says Simpson. Recommended strategies include flying first-class, bringing along a male assistant, carrying a letter of introduction of a senior officer in the company, and having business cards translated so that her ranking is correctly stated.

Some women working abroad prefer to skip after-business social activities, which are important to relationship building. "Sometimes the best answer is, you go to the dinner and one place after that, and then you return to your hotel because 'You have to make a call,'" advises Simpson. "If you're talking about Asia, it's the right time to phone the office back home."

Other times, women do not even receive the opportunity to participate in social events. "I know one woman executive visiting China whose host told her, 'You're tired now. Perhaps you'd like to go back to your hotel.' That was his way of not inviting her."

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