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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.
One entrepreneur expected customers from paternalistic countries to judge her. What she experienced surprised her.
Being a woman in the international lobster wholesale business hasn't been a hindrance to Stephanie Nadeau, even though the stereotypically male-dominated countries of Japan and Korea are two of her largest overseas outlets. In fact, she says among the people she's dealing with, "being female seems to be an advantage. I've been able to talk to people I need to get on the phone. I think it's because [being a woman] is unusual in this business, which is 99.9 percent male."
While her partner, Michael Marceau, heads operations at Kennebunkport, Maine-based The Lobster Company, Nadeau handles all sales, both foreign and domestic. When she began, she wasn't sure whether she'd encounter gender discrimination, but now reports having better relations with Asian customers than with some U.S. customers who still don't seem to trust women in business.
The bottom line, according to Nadeau, 34: If you can walk the walk and talk the talk, you've got the business, no matter where you are.
By Robert McGarvey
Designed for women in business, this site offers plenty of freebies: marketing tips, an e-mail newsletter, a Web-site critique, links to marketing-related e-zines and even a comedy page ("Humor in Stockings"). There's also an option to join a networking e-mail list, where members offer advice, ask questions and provide support to one another (it's a busy list, with upwards of 50 e-mails daily). The site is well done and the resources are rich--it's worth a look.
The Lobster Company, P.O. Box 584, Kennebunkport, ME 04046, (207) 985-3456