A female executive in the pharmaceutical industry recently returned from a business trip to a conservative Muslim country. "How did it go?" I inquired. "Not so good," she frowned. "Some of the men refused to shake my hand. How am I supposed to build a relationship with them if we can't even share a handshake?" She felt confused, disrespected and a bit angry.
Businesswomen have to be agile, resourceful and resilient to excel in a male-dominated business environment. Of the many obstacles they must navigate, one of the toughest is the challenge of cross-cultural business. In short, many cultures don't know how to handle dynamic females as business partners, and many businesswomen are perplexed about how to cope with this while going for the deal. This is a pertinent issue because the greatest economic growth is occurring in Africa, China, the Gulf, and other regions where gender roles are most pronounced.
The major point to remember -- especially for businesswomen coming from liberal countries, such as those in the West -- is to be aware that every country has its own set of cultural norms and traditions, and expected roles for males and females. Women and men have their places in the social hierarchy, particularly in more traditional societies like, for instance, parts of Asia, Latin America, Southern Europe, India and the Middle East. The intricate weave of these roles intertwine the business and private spheres; it is simplistic to think solely in terms of "oppressed" women, and "omnipotent" men. Indeed, in most traditional societies, for example, women have near-dictatorial powers inside the home while the man serves the family outside of it.
Cross-cultural business has much more to do than just gender. Age is important as well, where young businesspeople are seen as too inexperienced or not "serious" enough professionally to be a worthy and reliable business partner. A few gray hairs silvering the temples of a female's or male's head is reassuring; age is linked to wisdom. Status -- job title, "proper" dress, the latest Smartphone, a chauffeur-driven car -- all indicate your importance, your power and your place in the corporate hierarchy.
Body language and communication style are equally significant. A woman's stance may transmit dominance or meekness, confidence or indecisiveness. A direct, forthright, these-are-the-facts speaking manner will be seen as disrespectful, even rude, in indirect communication cultures such as in, say, India or Japan. Similarly, steady eye contact -- considered a means to build trust in some cultures -- can indicate challenge, flirtation, disrespect, invitation or aggression in Southern Europe, the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere.
A feisty, pro-active young businesswoman has to consider the myriad signals she is sending out to her counterparts -- male and female alike -- in more conservative societies. Those qualities which create her success in her homeland may be the very ones that offend her partners -- and hinder her professional development -- in other countries. She has to burn extra time and energy thinking about how her style and behavior will be "read" and evaluated by her -- mostly male -- business partners although ironically, women often judge a member of her own sex -- particularly if she is a foreigner -- more harshly than a man would.
Additionally, businesswomen have to determine if the signals she is receiving are plain ole sexism or cultural norms and values -- or a delicate interplay between them all. She then has to decide how to deal with this, keeping in mind that the dominate power sets the rules in business and in most societies around the globe, that power is male. Men are the gatekeepers; savvy businesswomen work to get results from them, not to offend them.
The most important thing to remember for women is to not take this personally, especially in a cross-cultural setting. Have an open mind and beware of stereotyping this or that culture. Indeed, both sexes should attend intercultural communication seminars to become consciously aware of the verbal and non-verbal signals they are broadcasting to others, and how these signals are received and transmitted back to them. The reasons why some women in the Gulf wear the hijab, for instance, are richly complex: culturally and historically. But that does not prevent them from being one of the most creative, rapidly-growing and dynamic IT entrepreneurs in the world. People's behavior and mindset can be open, tolerant and flexible regardless of their cultural setting; this is a matter of personality, not gender.
Culture is never wrong. It's just different.