Women And International Business: Breaking the Myths

Researcher Nancy Adler conducted a monumental study in the mid 1980s to address myths about women and international business. Her study investigated if commonly held myths about women in international business were true including: women are not interested in International business, women were not willing to travel overseas for a variety of reasons namely family responsibilities and women would not be viewed as credible in overseas business due to the local perception of women.

Her study results revealed that many of these false perceptions were indeed myths often held by male managers and HR personnel and women were interested and willing to conduct business overseas.

Today many of these same myths still exist despite the dramatic increase of women in business and women owned businesses and women traveling overseas.

Here are some facts published by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) (www.dol.gov), The National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) (www.nawbo.org), and the Small Business Administration (SBA) (www.sba.gov), on women in the work force:

  • Women account for more than 48 percent of the work force in America.
  • Women comprise more than 43 percent of employees in American executive, administrative and managerial occupations and this number is growing.
  • Businesses owned by women number more than 8 million in the U.S.
  • More than 33 percent of women business owners report that they exported in their first or second year of operation and the majority reported they were successful on their first transaction.

It is no longer just a rumor that women have become major players in the U.S. workforce and in the global business environment. More and more women are traveling overseas to conduct business for their corporations or for their own business ventures.

My own research indicates women can and are successful in international business, despite the variety of viewpoints they encounter around the world. Specifically, my research has demonstrated that establishing credibility during the initial stages of business is one area that businesswomen find critical to their success.

Establishing your credibility
For men, credibility is often derived from their gender and their status in the company. For women, credibility is more often derived from their individual skills. Women report they often have to work extra hard to establish credibility because of their gender.

Some women explain:

When I conduct business in most countries I am consciously aware that my male colleagues have more credibility than I do, just because of gender differences. In most countries women are not expected to have significant positions of authority, so I am frequently viewed in the same way. I am first assumed to be an administrator, not the decision-maker in the group, whereas my male colleague is first viewed as the manager or decision-maker. I feel I have to work doubly hard to establish my credibility before I can effectively conduct business and I’m aware that I need to do this immediately so that the business can start. (Chicago)

When I travel outside the U.S. for the corporate office, I am viewed as foreign first, and female second. However, I feel I am still met with some degree of skepticism as to what my role is and how much authority I have for the corporate office. Due to this, I take extra steps to make sure that the proper introductions are made in advance to limit concerns that men might have about my credibility. (Los Angeles)

As a woman business owner I realize that I am not the norm in many countries. Therefore I have to develop methods by which to establish my self and my company as credible for my foreign business associates. This requires preparation and advance communication about my firm, our success and our viability — perhaps more than is required for men who run their own firms. (New York)

Here are some pointers for establishing credibility:

  • Be visible. Attend and host meetings between your company and your international counterparts whenever possible. International travel is often associated with decision-makers in a firm, so being present adds to your credibility.
  • Introductions are important, particularly for women. If you are doing business with a firm for the first time, have yourself introduced by a higher-ranking person in your company who already knows the people with whom you will be dealing.
  • If you cannot have someone introduce you, ask a higher-ranking person in your company to send a fax or written correspondence in advance, outlining your title, responsibilities and background.
  • Make sure your business card indicates a distinctive title such as “Manager” or “Director” so that your position can be clearly understood. If there is any doubt about your title, it may be automatically assumed that you have a lesser role than other members on your team.
  • In general, foreigners will often look and respond more to the men on your team than the women. This is because there are fewer women in executive positions outside of the U.S. Prepare for this, including making seating arrangements placing you in a position of authority.
  • If someone appears confused about your name and rank, offer him another business card, even if you have already given him one. This is a subtle way of reinforcing your title and ensuring acknowledgment of your participation as an active member at the meeting.
  • Women should lead business discussions when possible. If there is only one woman and everyone is of equal rank, let the woman take the lead to help establish her credibility.
  • A female team leader may experience a problem establishing her credibility unless team members defer to her as the authority figure on the team. American men need to be aware of their tendency to jump in and answer questions, especially when a woman is speaking, undermines her authority and the team’s effectiveness. Women should advise team members not to answer questions directed to her and to otherwise defer to her whenever appropriate. A good response when asked a question that should be directed to a female colleague is: “Jane is the best person to answer that question.”
  • Be professional. Present yourself in a sincere, confident, professional manner, both in appearance and speech, to create a good first impression. Be yourself. Do not come on too strong, but don’t defer when it is appropriate for you to respond. Deferring to age and position is, however, always acceptable for both sexes.
  • Be aware of women’s roles in other countries. If you understand where women are in their own corporate environment it will give you insight into how the culture may perceive you.

Despite commonly held myths about women in International travel, businesswomen are traveling and conducting business globally in increased numbers and they are successful. Establishing credibility in advance is one of the key areas where women can ensure her business success.

Tracey Wilen writes more articles about women and international business at www.globalwomen.biz.


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