How to set the tone for business travel to international destinations.
With more companies conducting business globally, international business travel is becoming commonplace. Yet business travel to international destinations is largely dominated by men. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, just 28% of outbound international business travelers in 2010 were women--compared to 50% for all types of travel.
When it comes to international assignments--often a stepping-stone to a promotion back home--the discrepancy is even starker: Women make up a mere 6% of the expatriate workforce. One likely reason for these gaps is the perception that women will not be taken as seriously as men in male-dominated cultures such as those in Asia, South America or the Middle East, and may find themselves vulnerable to sexual harassment and other abuses. The reality, however, is that women can be just as effective as their male counterparts when conducting business abroad, and just as safe. It's simply a matter of research, cultural respect and some common sense.
Here are some tips that experts say will smooth the path to international success:
Establish your authority: Even in male-dominated cultures, those conducting international business are likely to understand that women from the U.S. deserve respect. Nonetheless, you should not be shy about asserting your credentials, qualifications and position in the organizational hierarchy as quickly as possible--even prior to a face-to-face meeting. Start with a letter of introduction from your company president making your status clear. You should also carry business cards that feature a clearly defined title. Make sure that your male colleagues treat you with appropriate respect, so that those on the other side of the table follow suit.
Dress appropriately: Your safest bet is to dress conservatively in well-tailored outfits, not only to convey authority and gravitas, but also to meet cultural norms. Choose a closed neckline, long sleeves and a longer skirt or loose pants. A headscarf may be appropriate in Muslim countries. On the other hand, some status-conscious cultures call for the latest fashions. Consult a guidebook for specific rules, or ask your hosts ahead of time what's expected.
Be prepared to adapt: In unfamiliar cultures, adopt an attitude of openness and curiosity. What may seem condescending to you might be a sign of respect to your host. Take cues from those around you, and let others initiate contact. In some Muslim countries, for instance, physical contact between men and women is frowned upon, so if your host doesn't extend his hand to shake, you shouldn't either. That doesn't mean you should endure situations or behavior that make you uncomfortable. Be direct but polite in setting boundaries, and excuse yourself if those around you do not respect them.
Use your advantages: Your visibility as a woman doing business--and the curiosity it may still arouse--can be an entry point into conversation and negotiation. Women have also been shown to be more skilled than men in developing interpersonal relationships. Get to know your hosts, if they are receptive to it, and you might find them more amenable to conducting business.
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