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You can't change the sexist attitudes you find in the global marketplace, but you can take advantage of them.

Imagine you're on a European trade mission being told by a prominent entrepreneur how to successfully conduct business in his country. Despite the fact that there are five women in the room, he addresses the men only, constantly saying things like "your wife," and "when your kids spend time with their mothers."

This is exactly what Lynn O'Brien Hallstein, an assistant professor of communications at Babson College in Babson Park, Massachusetts, experienced during trade trips to Central Europe and Latin America. She also reviewed a variety of literature on gender issues in international business; her research, she says, revealed gender "was both a hindrance and an asset."

O'Brien Hallstein found that women in business face certain predictable issues--being treated as if they're invisible, encountering stereotypical views of women's capabilities, being looked at as some sort of a phenomenon, and even being considered so unusual, they're treated as a "third sex."

While you might initially consider these to be problems, O'Brien Hallstein says it's not quite that simple. "In Latin America, there's the whole issue of machismo culture. On the other hand, there seems to be an odd respect for women [in business] that can benefit you. [Latin Americans'] real appreciation of femininity gives women some room to negotiate." In fact, she adds, due to the attention they receive, women can sometimes gain access to certain areas or people their male colleagues can't.

O'Brien Hallstein has developed a number of strategies for women to use when doing business overseas:

  • Research attitudes toward women in a particular country before you go but don't automatically assume you'll be treated that way.
  • Connect with American women already in the location where you want to conduct business. They can give you further insight and may even be able to provide introductions to men or women willing to open doors for you.
  • Choose your battles. Decide which behavior will get you the contract: confrontation, removing yourself from the situation or exploiting the sexist behavior.
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This article was originally published in the August 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

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