Cultural challenges for female expats


It’s a fact of life in many international companies that anyone hoping for a successful executive career will be expected to spend time working abroad.

Nobody finds it easy being thrown into a new culture. But for women, international assignments can be particularly challenging as a result of cultural, social and gender barriers that their male colleagues simply don’t face.

That is certainly true of my own experience of working in Asia. It quickly became apparent that there is a pervasive unconscious bias around leadership across Asia. Often women are seen more as 'doers' than leaders, which has implications in terms of their career development. But even as a senior executive, the same bias meant that I found securing the trust and creditability of my male peers and team members harder than I had expected.

My first 90 days after being drafted in from central headquarters was spent learning about the local business society, what role women played, who spoke up and when, how to give feedback or disagree with a peer or superior.

This knowledge then enabled me to find ways to work with the culture rather than against it. I set aside the gender differences and managed my team as 'people', holding them to high standards and setting boundaries and expectations. I also used key one-to-one conversations to address any biases so that people knew where I stood on the matter whilst I tried to show understanding and respect for their views.

Establish contacts

Establishing a strong network of people you can trust for support, guidance and even coaching is another essential building-block for a successful assignment abroad. Not only will a strong network help you understand cultural norms, but it’s an important way to build your personal brand and strengthen your creditability. I found it particularly helpful to have an external coach who could guide me in a male-dominated organization and region.

It takes a tremendous amount of energy to establish networks in a different country, but be pro-active about finding the influencers in your organization and the market place. Then work on maintaining these relationships long-term to help you to progress.

Gender diversity is not a priority

Compared to Europe or the USA, nurturing female talent is simply isn’t a strategic focus for most companies in Asia. So even if you're in a leadership role, ensuring that you’re kept in the loop and included in decision-making can be challenging.

So it’s important to be proactive, assertive and to take ownership of your career. You may not have access to the internal or external channels you need to boost your success, so think of ways you can self-promote and gain exposure. Draw upon your network of contacts for advice or insight. Can you put yourself forward for any projects or initiatives that haven’t yet piqued the interest of other leaders?

Be yourself but learn to adjust

It can be difficult to be authentic when your management style is at odds with the prevailing work culture. For example, I value an open door policy and a work climate that promotes continuous learning through regular, open feedback. But such openness is considered disrespectful in Asia.

In Asia, leadership is ‘top-down’, authoritarian and directive. There’s little interest in small talk. Giving feedback, support or involving team members in decision-making is not the norm. I quickly learnt that the more I involved staff in strategic planning and encouraged ideas, the less confidence and trust my subordinates had in me. They assumed I must lack experience if I was asking for their input.

Yet continuous learning through feedback is vital for developing and driving results through people, a capability I wanted to demonstrate back to central office. To overcome this challenge - without compromising my leadership approach - I adjusted my feedback to be more focused, so on a one-to-one basis or on a specific area or project rather than on-going.

Likewise, I also found out that women with strong views tend to be viewed as aggressive whilst men with similar views are merely demonstrating their expertise and passion! So I learned to adapt my directness, to control my positive and high energy and tone down my level of participation in meetings in a way that aligned more with local norms. Rather than challenge data or views in a group, I used separate face-to-face meetings to present facts and supporting evidence, which soon earned me the credibility I needed to succeed.

The divide

Since my first foreign assignment, many more females are taking seats on the boards of businesses around the world. Nevertheless gender inequality is still a fact of life to a greater or lesser degree in many regions. The key for any female executive is to understand these disparities quickly. Then adapt or learn new ways of leadership that you can use to showcase your international leadership skills and overcome any possible setbacks early in your career.

About The Author

Cynthia Stuckey
Cynthia Stuckey

Cynthia Stuckey is Asia Pacific Managing Director of The Forum Corporation, a global provider of learning solutions in leadership development and sales performance training.