March 8 is International Women’s Day, when the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women are celebrated worldwide. International Women’s Day first took place in 1911, as a result of the suffragette movement, with marches and rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained and hold public office.
Ironically, perhaps, women have never been more in the news, thanks to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Both have drawn global attention to issues of sexism and harassment and women from all walks of life have joined the cause. Both initiatives have opened a floodgate. We are witnessing massive cultural change.
Yet still, more than a century after the first International Women’s Day, women continue to be vastly outnumbered by men at board level. There are cultures all over the world where women are still expected to conform to certain stereotypes. The global gender pay gap is still expected to take decades to close.
Women leaders in business face many issues when working across cultures but forewarned is forearmed. Here are some points to bear in mind:
- First, anywhere in the world, focus on the fact that people in business have common goals, regardless of culture: a successful partnership, profit, good relationships, sustainability. Business should not be about gender, but about professionalism and ability. Women in a position to choose whom they do business with should seek out business partners with the same ideology. This may mean that women have to work harder than their male counterparts to form business relationships but it will pay off in the end.
- Women in business need to prepare themselves for the challenges ahead when trying to lead in countries with the widest gender gaps. In many of these countries – Kuwait, Qatar, Cote d’Ivoire, Pakistan, for example, high numbers of women achieve university degrees but barely any make it into leadership positions. Prejudice against women in senior business roles is deeply entrenched. Female leaders need to have a strategy to cope with gender stereotyping – and to seek the support of their employer when working in ‘difficult’ countries and leading multicultural teams.
- More than men, women may have to modify their leadership style in different cultures to blend in with the local management style. Women in leadership positions may have grown used to being combative and almost aggressive, simply in an effort to be heard. In Japan, though, a leader needs to demonstrate wisdom and respect for others. In India, a leader should give others a chance to voice their opinion, and needs to be a good listener. In the USA and the UK, female leaders are expected to demonstrate their authority but exhibit emotional intelligence. Often, women have to choose between being respected and being liked, rather than both.
- According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, there are cultures where, regardless of their ability, women leaders are, regrettably, genuinely expected to behave differently from men. In China, India and Russia, respondents to a survey firmly believed that women should demonstrate authority in a reserved way, while men should do so in an assertive way. The same report found that women are expected in many cultures, the USA and the UK included, to guide others towards a conclusion, while for men, it was more important to share their conclusion directly. In other words, respondents to the survey expected men to express themselves with confidence and to take credit for the idea, while the role of a female leader was more to let others think they had arrived at the right conclusion themselves.
- Employers need to recognize when specific training is needed for local women being prepared for leadership roles, as local women are often viewed with even more prejudice than expat women, who are often regarded as somewhere on the social ladder between a man and a local woman. Local female talent needs to be prepared and trained to overcome this bias, especially in cultures where women have strongly defined, traditional roles; in many Middle Eastern countries, for example. Corporate culture needs to promote a more equal workplace, regardless of faith or ethnicity.
- Is it all gloom and doom for women? No. As Oprah Winfrey famously said at the 2018 Golden Globes ceremony, as a result of #MeToo and #TimesUp, “A new day is on the horizon.” This year’s theme is #BalanceforBetter, building on the same theme, working towards gender equality. You can make your own commitment here, at www.internationalwomensday.com.
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