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Sexual Harassment and Sexual Discrimination when working Internationally

Since ancient times women have been viewed, in many cultures, as men’s inferiors physically, morally, and intellectually. Today, in western cultures, women enjoy more freedom and equality than ever before in history. Despite the gains made by women in recent years, particularly in the U.S., many women worldwide still find that their access to education, employment, healthcare and political influence are limited because of their gender. These discrepancies continue to exist because many societies still maintain centuries-old social and religious laws, customs, and traditions that have created barriers to education, jobs, and healthcare, as well as deprive women of their political and civil rights.

Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment is usually defined as a form of discrimination in which sexual advances or requests for sexual favors constitute a condition of a person’s employment or advancement in the workplace. It frequently occurs between a male and a female, often instigated by a male manager or other person in power. While many countries are starting to have laws against such discrimination, it is often reported that the laws are not enforced.
Sexual harassment occurs in workplaces worldwide, including the United States. Laws that specifically prohibit sexual harassment have been enacted in Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States, but many other countries are still in the process of studying the problem. There are two types of sexual harassment defined by U.S. law: quid pro quo and hostile environment. Quid pro quo means that an employee is asked to perform a sexual act in exchange for a job, promotion, or other perk. A “hostile environment” is described as one which contains situations, acts, or items that can inhibit the productivity of an employee, such as sexually suggestive language, behavior, or pictures.
Some strategies (as discussed in more detail below) for employees who experience sexual harassment include confronting the individual by informing him or her of the intrusive behavior and requesting that he or she stop it, notifying management or, should management be the offender, notifying the personnel department or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (In the United States, call toll free 800-669-EEOC or see to find your local office.) The EEOC will be able to provide you with written guidelines for determining what constitutes sexual harassment and how to deal with it.

Sexual Discrimination
The American businesswoman may unwittingly and unavoidably be party to conversations and actions that discriminate against women. For example, in Asian businesses it is natural to ask a female employee to serve tea, and a woman may be subjected to innocent questions about her age, marital status, and whether or not she has children. In Korea and Japan, protocol has men entering rooms and elevators ahead of women. In Europe, office talk tends to be more flirtatious and sexual in nature, sprinkled with many off-color jokes and puns. Derogatory statements about women in Germany are often expressed openly in the office, and reference to a woman’s physique is not uncommon in Italy and France. Other countries still view a woman who is alone as a prostitute since otherwise her husband, boyfriend or family would accompany her. American women often view excessive flattery by Latin Americans as derogatory because U.S. office policies would not tolerate such comments.
Some women report that suggestive sexual comments are sometimes used (consciously or unconsciously) as negotiating tools in an attempt to throw a woman off her guard. Women must be prepared for this and develop the ability to keep control and not show anger or other emotion. Some tactics women have used successfully to respond to such situations include: giving a polite verbal reprimand to remind your counterparts that you are conducting a business session; suggesting a break while stating the negotiation has obviously gotten off track; or ending the negotiation in its entirety to show absolute intolerance and disapproval.

Gender Issues in Europe
Most women in Europe are still battling the glass ceiling even more than women in the U.S. There are fewer women in upper management and more hierarchical issues with which to grapple. Furthermore, European women are still expected to handle all responsibilities relating to home and family. This interferes with their ability to hold down a job unless they are wealthy enough to have hired help at home. Shopping hours are still not convenient for working women and day care is often not available. Younger women do not have the role models of older women in the business world, so they must often work harder to establish credibility and to break into the upper ranks of business. Derogatory comments about women appear to be more accepted by the public. For example, in England the derogatory terms “cow” and “bird” are widely used, even on TV, and in films, to refer to women. In France and Italy it is not unusual for males to touch women inappropriately.

Gender Issues in Asia
Asian culture has traditionally placed more value on male offspring and on the male roles of ruler, protector, cultivator, and breadwinner. The male is out in the world, while the female remains at home to manage the household and raise the children. Asian males have consequently been in a dominant position over Asian women and have largely controlled their means of livelihood.
Centuries ago male philosophers, China’s elite, developed precepts of behavior -- notably passivity and obedience -- that women were expected, or forced, to follow. Women were subordinated to their fathers, brothers, husbands, and even sons. Historically, marriages in Asia were arranged not for love, but for family connections. The bride usually lived under the domination of the husband’s mother and frequently faced competition from secondary wives and concubines. Her husband was allowed to repudiate his wife, especially if she did not produce a male heir. If the husband died, the wife could not easily remarry. She had no economic independence, was frequently illiterate, and had no property rights. Infanticide limited the number of female children.
Today, Asian countries continue to be patriarchal societies with strong traditions. When a woman marries, she generally joins her husband’s family, and her ties with her own family weaken. The couple either lives with the husband’s family or, as is occurring more frequently, on its own. If there is a divorce, the father often gets custody of the children. Divorce is considered shameful and is rarely discussed. Divorce rates, which used to be very low in East Asia, are growing however, as women become more economically independent.
There is an old Chinese saying: “Women are the moon reflecting the sunlight,” meaning women reflect the glow of men. Young, educated East Asian women increasingly reject this old saying. They emphasize their individuality, independence, personal responsibility, hard work, and careers, even as they try to maintain their femininity. Yet the few recent studies of Asian women indicate that many still feel inferior to men and worry about managing a career and a family. Job discrimination is still practiced in Asia. “Family connections” are very important in obtaining desirable jobs. Stereotyping women as the weaker, less capable sex still prevails.

Gender Issues in Latin America
The concept of “machismo” is important in Mexico and other Latin American countries, although American businesswomen will encounter more macho attitudes in Mexico than in any other a part of Latin America. The word "macho" does not carry a negative connotation in Mexico, as it does in the U.S. For a Mexican, the word "macho" implies strength, valor, self-confidence and masculinity, which are all considered positive qualities. There is also an underlying assumption in the culture that men are supposed to be stronger, braver, wiser and more sexually knowledgeable than women. Displays of machismo include: showing courage in a bullring, risk-taking, taking part in bar room confrontations, and displaying sexual prowess by bragging about sexual conquests or by having a large family. To be macho also requires the repudiation of all characteristics considered feminine, such as unselfishness, kindness, frankness and truthfulness.
The proof of a man’s maleness in this culture is his ability to completely dominate his wife and his children and to have sexual relations with any woman he desires. A double moral standard exists between the fidelity expectations placed upon males and females in Mexico and Latin America. A woman's primary obligation is to make a home and procreate; she is dedicated to a life of service and no infidelity on her part is tolerated. However, men who maintain mistresses are within their legal rights as long as they are discreet about their affairs. A man can frequently divorce his wife if she commits adultery, but the wife can only divorce her husband if the act took place in their home.
Macho men will often express an air of superiority when it comes to dealing with American women in business. They may be overly polite and attentive to a woman, but in a patronizing way. Machismo may be expressed in terms of canceled, forgotten, or ignored meetings, and other frustrations and delays. Businesswomen, especially when traveling alone, should expect a high likelihood of unwelcome sexual advances. Examples of this include: overly long eye contact, the pressing of legs under the table, and an overemphasis on how appealing a woman looks. Most businesswomen advise against entertaining a man alone. Instead, they suggest that a group be arranged. They also emphasize that a woman should establish herself as a businesswoman even at her hotel, and dress conservatively in business suits.

Strategies for Coping
It is important for you, your team, and your managers to understand the strategies you should pursue if you find yourself in a compromising situation. Managers should be well-versed on their responsibilities in cases where women have been harassed, and they should understand how to act in accordance with company policy and governing laws. It is important to realize, for example, that an executive team based in the home office in the United States is actually legally responsible for the actions of their employees worldwide, including in subsidiaries in foreign countries.
Working in the international arena can be challenging. Many foreign countries have no laws or regulations concerning sexual harassment, or they are not enforced, and as a result employees in many countries do not understand the American viewpoint. As a result, male managers in the U.S. who are unfamiliar with more traditional societies may avoid sending female staff members to represent their companies to these cultures, fearing that these businesswomen cannot be effective in male-oriented societies. This viewpoint, however, may be keeping these executives from using what is in fact their strongest asset, since women’s perceived attributes -- being good listeners, mediators, and consensus builders -- are well-received in international business. Male managers only need to become knowledgeable about the situation in other countries and what their responsibilities are in the event of sexual harassment. They can then send their female staff members with confidence.
U.S. courts (see offer some legal remedies and suggestions for handling discrimination and harassment situations: “The (U.S.) courts have established that corporations that assign a U.S. citizen to a post in a foreign country must treat that employee as if he or she were in the U.S., regardless of local customs and traditions.” Recent Supreme Court cases suggest several legal/human resource strategies that can be used to prevent gender discrimination. The first is: “to educate and prepare employees sent to work in different countries abroad. Should a dispute arise, arbitration or mediation is preferred over litigation. The best overall strategy is to develop and implement a well-conceived company policy that ensures gender equality” (Cava, A. & Mayer, D., 1993).

Management Responsibility
The elimination of sexual harassment starts at home. If your company doesn’t have a company policy on discrimination and sexual harassment at home, there will be little to back you up if you find yourself facing such situations in the international environment. Top management must therefore take a proactive role in eradicating it from the workplace. There are many good reasons for doing so. Sexual harassment can reduce employee productivity and morale, and consequently it can have a negative impact on a company’s bottom line, as well as cost firms a great deal in lawsuits.
It is the responsibility of the executive staff to eliminate sexual harassment. Top management must instruct its staff that sexual harassment is illegal and will not be tolerated.. Issuing sexual harassment policies, scheduling open discussions, expressing disapproval, creating a path for resolution and complaint, and respecting individual privacy should all be part of the top management plan. A comfortable environment with open, company-wide communication is key to alleviating any inhibitions employees may have about discussing their experiences.
As a first step, a company needs a visible, comprehensive policy emphasizing the importance of appropriate behavior: harassment and social misconduct toward its employees will not be tolerated. This policy should also state the ramifications of any violations. Hard copies of the company policy should be distributed not only internally but also to customers and suppliers. A copy of the policy should be available to all employees and visibly posted in work and rest areas. The company should have training programs for its management staff and its employees on a regular basis.
If you are in management, you can play a key role. Do not overlook or refuse to acknowledge that problems can occur in other countries, because this will only help reinforce their acceptance. If one of your traveling staff is harassed, it will interfere with the productivity of your business dealings. Harassment also violates U.S. law. It is frustrating for an individual who has faced sexual harassment to work with or for staff who do not understand the seriousness of the offense, or travel with a manager who does not speak or act on behalf of employees.

Individual Responsibility
Prepare yourself for the possibility of encountering sexual harassment when you travel abroad. When you are visiting countries that are male-dominated and still have little awareness of women’s rights, your actions may actually have a greater impact on foreign men than written policies. In these situations, men won’t expect women to assert themselves, and if you strongly voice your disapproval of inappropriate behavior, these men will often back down. Also, most businessmen would not want to lose a business deal by offending someone.
Most women report that while their business days go smoothly, the after-hours socializing that occurs in some countries can become a challenge. It is still common, for example, for Asian men to go out drinking after work. While drinking, they feel more comfortable about voicing their inner feelings. If you are the lone woman in your group, you may become the target for questions that would not be asked during working hours. In Asia, drinking excuses what Americans may consider appallingly inappropriate behavior. While the American may remain upset if he or she feels anything untoward has occurred during an evening, the incident is generally ignored by the Asian participants the next day as they carry on with business as usual. In Latin America, women are often the targets of flattering comments about their appearance by Latin American men, sometimes to the point that it feels intrusive to the women.
Should you be subjected to what you feel is sexual harassment, remain calm and professional. This attitude will have much more impact than if you become upset or angry. In many cases men may have been trying to incite you or test your resilience. In most cases you can either respond with a calm statement of disapproval, or you can show your disapproval by remaining silent. If you are in a situation that has become particularly unpleasant, you can always leave.
If you are traveling overseas on business and have been accosted, you are still protected as an employee of an U.S. firm, and should take action in accordance with your firm’s sexual harassment policy. It is always best to report the incident rather than being passive and keeping it to yourself. This way, if the perpetrator is an employee of your firm, he can be corrected or reprimanded, and if he is employed by another firm, at least your executives will be aware of the issue when deciding whether to enter further business dealings with that company.

Be Prepared

• If you are single, avoid talking about your personal lifestyle or dating, as these subjects can lead to uncomfortable conversations. In particular, do not discuss your marital situation if you are divorced or living with someone.

• If you feel that a conversation is inappropriate, don’t respond. Just change the subject.

• Avoid situations where any unwanted intimacy may be initiated, such as dinners for two.

• Be careful that your actions cannot be interpreted as being either aggressive or flirtatious.

• If your international hosts insist on opening doors for you or holding your chair at the dining table, graciously allow them do so. Remember they are trying to respond appropriately when working with women.

• Avoid eating or drinking alone in strange restaurants, since you may be viewed as a pick-up target. Ask your hotel concierge for restaurant recommendations.

Responding to Uncomfortable Questions
When you are asked a question you consider uncomfortable or inappropriate, use short, standard answers to discourage further questioning. For example, many women are asked their marital status, their age, and, if married, about dual careers. While these questions may be unusual, they are often more commonly asked in foreign countries as a form of interest about you, a woman who may be very different than women in their own country. You can answer these in a polite manner while suggesting that the questions are not appropriate by giving answers such as “My career keeps me very busy,” or “I am younger than I look.” Ignoring the question and changing the subject is a simple way of redirecting the conversation. If the questions are more direct and aggressive and sexual in nature, be assertive and answer, “This is not an appropriate question to ask,” or, if the questioner continues to be uncooperative, try to embarrass him by telling another group member about your discomfort. Silence can also be very effective.

Strategies for responding to uncomfortable questions also include:

• You may be asked seemingly intrusive questions about your marital status and whether or not you have children. Prepare some stock answers or change the topic of conversation to one that is more comfortable for you.

• You might be invited to a bar after dinner. Whether or not you want to attend is your choice. It’s not impolite to say no, giving jet lag or business commitments such as faxes, e-mails, or phone calls as an excuse.

• If your host exhibits inappropriate behavior, inform him that you are uncomfortable and that you want him to stop.

• f you are traveling with a team, have other team members join you in expressing dissatisfaction with the situation. This will usually end the unwanted behavior, since to continue it will cause bad feelings.

• If you are in a social setting that is becoming uncomfortable, inform your host that you are uncomfortable and would like to leave. Politely request that he call you a taxi. If he does not cooperate, ask the establishment’s staff to call one for you.

• If no action is taken, get ready to leave and state the reasons you are leaving. There is no reason to stay in a situation that is uncomfortable for you.

• An employee who desires to leave while his or her colleagues desire to stay should do so and not feel badly about “breaking up the fun.”

About the Author: Tracey Wilen is Author at

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