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Establishing your Credibility in International Business

Women in the Global Workforce
In today’s business world, women are a growing part of the domestic and global workforce. It is estimated that worldwide about 70% of all working-age women now work outside of the home. Despite this, discrimination in the workforce continues to be a problem for women worldwide. Discrimination takes the form of job segregation, unequal pay, lack of training, lack of advancement, and exclusion from certain fields that are considered “masculine.” Working mothers are particularly disadvantaged since, due to lack of child care facilities, they are often forced to put their careers on hold or accept lower paying jobs.

Patriarchies and Their Impact on Businesswomen
Millions of women live in societies where centuries of social and religious laws, customs and traditions have created insurmountable barriers to education, jobs, and even healthcare, and have deprived women of their political and civil rights. It is important for the American woman traveling on business to understand not only her own situation, but also the situation of women in other cultures. It is often these cultural and traditional biases that American women will face when conducting business in foreign countries.
In order to understand women’s reception in business worldwide we need to understand how cultures view the women in their own society. Researchers Nancy Adler and Dafna Izraeli report in their 1994 review of 21 countries on four continents that, due to changing societal patterns, there have been significant increases in women in management in the world. The patterns they cite include favorable economic conditions, supportive government policies, changes in family roles, and emerging support systems. Despite these advances, these researchers also found that in most countries men continue to control the economic and political power and to dominate in professional management roles. Furthermore, they found that in all of the counties they studied women faced obstacles which included:
• Stereotypical perception of women’s abilities and qualifications
• Traditional attitudes toward women’s family roles
• Women’s minimal access to the social networks from which companies recruit managers and executives
• Broadly-based discrimination against women

These researchers report that explanations for these barriers to women’s progress worldwide have varied. They summarize four perspectives on why women are underrepresented in management worldwide:

1. Men’s characteristics and behaviors are viewed as the norm for effective managerial performance, and it is perceived that women do not display these characteristics, and thus have been excluded from managerial ranks.
2. Women’s own limitations inhibit her success in management by causing her to choose lower-ranked or career-limiting positions within the firm. Thus, firms offer men more opportunities to gain power, prestige and monetary rewards, leaving women underrepresented due to the uneven distribution of women and men in key roles.
3. Organizations have built-in assumptions about gender which explain why women are underrepresented and underutilized in management. This perspective suggests that gender discrimination is embedded in managers’ basic assumptions about society, the organization and how it should be run.
4. Men who, for reasons cited above, have been put into privileged positions within the firm do not want more competition than they already have. Men at each level of the hierarchy have the power to control the organization’s rules at that level, including its criteria for promotion and, thus, who enters and who does not.

But there is good news too. Despite these powerful and longstanding patterns and perspectives, these researchers (Adler and Izraeli) predict that global competition will drive out these archaic patterns of under representation, underutilization and skewed distributions of women in management, and, in fact, they believe that this change is starting to occur already.

Women’s Lack of Cross-Cultural Preparation
The lack of training for personnel on expatriate assignments has been highlighted by many researchers as a problem common to most firms who send personnel to other countries. Many of the difficulties encountered are due to employees’ ignorance of the foreign culture they are visiting. Cultural training for employees on shorter-term assignments is almost non-existent. Therefore employees are either sent to other countries without any formal preparation, or they train themselves by reading books available on the commercial market and, if time permits, take a language class at the local college or adult education center.
Women preparing for such assignments often face an even more precarious situation than their male colleagues because of the traditional gender barriers they may face in countries outside of the U.S. These businesswomen are frequently not aware of the discrimination they may face, and are often left to fend for themselves unless otherwise advised by a knowledgeable female colleague.
Even the commercial guidebooks that businesswomen may turn to may be misleading. Most books in this genre were written by men and either do not address women’s particular issues in international business or, worse, they suggest that women should not even be sent on foreign business assignments due to role differences which these men perceive to be unconquerable obstacles. In contrast, my own research (1992, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1998) indicates that women can be successful in international business, despite the variety of viewpoints they encounter around the world. Specifically, my research has demonstrated that establishing credibility during the initial stages of business is one area that businesswomen find critical to their success.

Establishing Your Credibility
For men, credibility is often derived from their gender and their status in the company. For women, credibility is more often derived from their individual skills. Women report that they often have to work extra hard to establish credibility because of their gender.
Some women explain:
When I conduct business in most countries I am consciously aware that my male colleagues have more credibility than I do, just because of gender differences. In most countries women are not expected to have significant positions of authority, so I am frequently viewed in the same way. I am first assumed to be an administrator, not the decision-maker in the group, whereas my male colleague is first viewed as the manager or decision-maker. I feel I have to work doubly hard to establish my credibility before I can effectively conduct business and I’m aware that I need to do this immediately so that the business can start. (Chicago)

When I travel outside the U.S. for the corporate office, I am viewed as foreign first, and female second. However, I feel I am still met with some degree of skepticism as to what my role is and how much authority I have for the corporate office. Due to this, I take extra steps to make sure that the proper introductions are made in advance to limit concerns that men might have about my credibility. (Los Angeles)

As a woman business owner I realize that I am not the norm in many countries. Therefore I have to develop methods by which to establish my self and my company as credible for my foreign business associates. This requires preparation and advance communication about my firm, our success and our viability -- perhaps more than is required for men who run their own firms. (New York)

Here are some pointers for establishing credibility:

• Be visible. Attend and host meetings between your company and your international counterparts whenever possible. International travel is often associated with decision-makers in a firm, so being present adds to your credibility.
• Introductions are important, particularly for women. If you are doing business with a firm for the first time, have yourself introduced by a higher-ranking person in your company who already knows the people with whom you will be dealing.
• If you cannot have someone introduce you, ask a higher-ranking person in your company to send a fax or written correspondence in advance, outlining your title, responsibilities and background.
• Make sure your business card indicates a distinctive title such as “Manager” or “Director” so that your position can be clearly understood. If there is any doubt about your title, it may be automatically assumed that you have a lesser role than other members on your team.
• Some women wear a school ring or a graduate school pendant to subtly advertise their background. Others wear corporate pins designating tenure, thus demonstrating their level of experience.
• In general, foreigners will often look and respond more to the men on your team than the women. This is because there are fewer women in executive positions outside of the U.S. Prepare for this by advising your colleagues of tactics that will help you and the other female members, including making seating arrangements that will place you in a position of authority.
• If someone appears confused about your name and rank, offer him another business card, even if you have already given him one. This is a subtle way of reinforcing your title and ensuring acknowledgment of your participation as an active member at the meeting
• Women should lead business discussions where possible. If there is only one woman and everyone is of equal rank, let the woman take the lead to help establish her credibility.
• A female team leader may experience a problem establishing her credibility unless team members defer to her as the authority figure on the team. American men need to be aware that their tendency to jump in and answer questions, especially when a woman is speaking, undermines her authority and the team’s effectiveness. Women should advise team members not to answer questions directed to her and to otherwise defer to her whenever appropriate. A good response when asked a question that should be directed to a female colleague is: “Jane is the best person to answer that question.”
• Be professional. Present yourself in a sincere, confident, professional manner, both in appearance and speech, to create a good first impression. Be yourself. Do not come on too strong, but don’t defer when it is appropriate for you to respond. Deferring to age and position is, however, always acceptable for both sexes.
• Be aware of women’s roles in other countries. If you understand where women are in their own corporate environment it will give you insight into how the culture may perceive you.

The Role of the Manager

Managers can be very effective in international business by helping to enhance their team’s credibility. The manager can introduce the staff members by title and outline their areas of expertise, act as moderator to refer questions to the appropriate team member, and highlight the staff’s achievements.
In particular, managers can help in the following ways:

• It is important that all team members, including management, understand their roles at the meeting and, more importantly, that they do not act out of role. If one of your colleagues is acting out of role, call for a break to explain how the group loses effectiveness when it is not cohesive.
• As a woman, you should advise management that your personal credibility may be jeopardized if your role is undermined, and that this could hinder the success of the team at any follow-up meetings.
• Managers can help enhance the credibility of female teammates by reinforcing their authority during the meeting. For example, if a woman is not receiving the appropriate respect, the manager may once again bring attention to her role and authority.

About the Author: Tracey Wilen is Author at

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