Role Play: Differing Cultural Attitudes to Women

When the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup gets underway in France on 1st August, female teams representing 12 nations including England, Wales, Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan and Samoa will take part. It’s only the seventh World Cup in the history of the women’s game, and just a few decades ago, such a tournament would have been almost unimaginable. Around the world, the status of women in sport, and all other aspects of society is changing, but the pace of change varies widely from country to country and culture to culture, so that globally there are marked differences in attitudes to women, and the roles that women play in society. It’s worth remembering that in the UK, it took 703 years to progress from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the first votes for women in 1918 – and a further 57 years before the sexual discrimination act of 1975.

Most cultures still have – to a greater or lesser extent at least – a gender role divide that is rooted in our hunter-gatherer past, when the male of the species would take responsibility for food and protection, leaving child-rearing and domestic duties to their female partner. While in most western cultures the roles of breadwinner or homemaker are no longer strictly defined by gender, in many other cultures they are still the norm.

Many factors including globalisation, economics, religion, core cultural values, and the ongoing struggle for women’s equality influence the perspective a culture has of women, and mean that gender roles and attitudes to women are evolving at different speeds in different cultures. When preparing to travel to another country for business, it’s essential to have an understanding of these differences if you are to:

  • Communicate effectively.
  • Avoid causing offence or making a cultural faux pas.

Of course, all the general rules of preparing to do business in another culture apply equally to both sexes, but women need to take particular care to understand how their gender is perceived in the culture they are visiting. It will be essential to demonstrate sensitivity, and conform to local expectations in order to be sure of achieving objectives.

Below is some top line etiquette advice for women travelling to other cultures on business:

  • Middle East
    • Dress conservatively and avoid any kind of revealing clothes.
    • Keep a scarf with you in case you are required to cover your head which may be necessary in some situations.
    • Your Arab host may offer you their hand to shake, but don’t put your hand forward first.
  • India
    • Strict orthodox Muslims don’t drink any alcohol, and neither do most Hindus, especially women.
    • Women should wear conservative trouser suits or dresses.
    • While Western women may offer their hand to a westernized Indian man, it is inappropriate to offer it to others.
  • China
    • Women do not usually drink at meals.
    • Revealing clothing for women is considered offensive to Chinese businessmen.
  • Japan
    • Women should dress conservatively, but don’t wear trousers for business as Japanese men can find it offensive.
    • Keep accessories to a minimum.
    • Women should only wear low-heeled shoes to avoid towering over men.
  • South Africa
    • Africa is a patriarchal society. Sometimes, foreign businesswomen are referred to as ‘girls’.
    • The best way for a woman to prove her worth is to demonstrate her knowledge of a topic

If you are a woman planning a business trip overseas to an unfamiliar culture, expatknowhow can help ensure that you are fully prepared for a successful visit. Our bespoke cross-cultural training programmes can be tailored specifically to your destination culture – from the perspective of your own gender. Call us now to discuss your requirements in detail.

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