Gender Bias in International Business

The gender bias toward women managers that exists in many countries creates hesitancy among U.S. multinational companies to offer women international assignments. Questions such as, Are there opportunities for women in international business? And should women represent U.S. firms abroad? Frequently arise as U.S. companies become more international. As women move up in domestic management ranks and seek career related international assignments, companies need to examine their positions on women managers in international business.

Gender bias in international business

In many cultures-Asian, Arab, Latin American, and even some European women are not typically found in upper levels of management. Traditional roles in male-dominated societies often are translated into minimal business opportunities for women. This cultural bias raises questions about the effectiveness of women in establishing successful relationships with host country associates. An often-asked question is whether it is appropriate to send women to conduct business with foreign customers. To some it appears logical that if women are not accepted in managerial roles within their own cultures, a foreign woman will not be any more acceptable. This is but one of the myths used to support decisions to exclude women from foreign assignments.

It is a fact that men and women are treated very differently in some cultures. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women are segregated, expected to wear veils, and forbidden even to drive. Evidence suggests, however, that prejudice toward foreign women executives may be exaggerated and that the treatment local women receive in their own cultures is not necessarily an indicator of how a foreign businesswoman is treated.

When a company gives management responsibility and authority to someone, a large measure of the respect initially shown that person is the result of respect for the firm. When a woman manager receives training and the strong backing of her firm, she usually receives the respect commensurate with the position she holds and the firm she represents. Thus, resistance to her as a female either does not materialize or is less severe than anticipated. Even in those cultures where a female would not ordinarily be a manager, foreign female executives benefit, at least initially, from the status, respect, and importance attributed to the firms they represent. In Japan, where Japanese women rarely achieve even lower-level management positions, representatives of U.S. firms are seen first as Americans, second as representatives of firms, and then as males or females. Similarly, women in China are seen as foreigners first and women second. Being foreign is such a major difference that being a woman is relatively minor. As one researcher notes, in China businesswomen from the West are almost like ‘honorary men’ once business negotiations begin, the willingness of a business host to engage in business transactions and the respect shown to a foreign businessperson grow or diminish depending on the business skills he or she demonstrates, regardless of gender. As world markets become more international and as international competition intensifies, U.S. companies need to be represented by the most capable personnel available; it seems shortsighted to limit the talent pool simply because of gender.

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