Why Understanding Cultural Differences is Important for Women in Business


As a woman in business, you may need to be prepared for culture-specific expectations and practices in business situations. Understanding cross-cultural differences and having an understanding of cross-cultural communication will definitely further your career goals.  You may realize that building close business relationships with people from other cultures might often be more difficult for you than it is for male colleagues.  There are ways to build these relationships and prove yourself as a trustworthy and respected professional that will often need to differ from how males accomplish this.


A key to coping effectively in situations where you encounter a cultural bias against women is to remember that in most Islamic, Asian and African countries few men have ever had the experience of working or socializing with women as equals or colleagues.  Therefore they are on highly unfamiliar ground.  Adopting a tolerant and understanding attitude of this will help you to earn their respect.


In particular the Muslim culture has strong and definite attitudes about women and female sexuality.  This is why many of their traditions such as covering women’s faces and separate women’s residential quarters serve to keep the genders at a distance from each other and reduce contact between them.  Muslim men are taught that direct eye contact is not appropriate between genders and they learn not to make eye contact with members of the opposite sex out of respect and modesty.


In general two factors get in the way of men in some cultures feeling able to build and nurture a strong business relationship with women:

lack of concepts for business relationship building among genders

    • clear frameworks exist in all societies to determine how relationship building is conducted among men in business.  However in many countries these concepts do not apply to males and females working together, complicating business relationships among genders.  Men often behave differently when dealing with women which tends to make the relationship building harder and less effective.

traditional expectations of female roles

    • men in several cultures may still hold onto traditional views of the roles women should fill and how women should behave among men.  Lacking a framework for dealing with females who hold substantial responsibility and make important decisions, they often do not know how to behave when dealing with women in positions of authority.  They may respond with indifference, defensiveness or even aggression due to this lack of knowledge.  Men in many countries may still openly or secretly disapprove of women in what they would traditionally view as “male” roles.  This can make it difficult for women to win the same trust and respect as their male counterparts.

Coping with cross-cultural bias as a woman in business requires patience, tact and toughness.  There are several strategies women can utilize to make these situations easier and ease the transition to positive and productive business relationships:

Do your homework

    • if you are aware of the culture and background of your business colleagues, learn the status of women in these cultures so you know the roots of their behavior and attitudes towards women.

Anticipate problems:

    • don’t necessarily expect to be treated as an equal.  As a woman working against traditional attitudes and expectations you may have to work exceptionally hard at winning the same respect as male colleagues

 Establish your rank and authority

    • it is essential to establish rank and authority early in the business relationship.  Men who are not used to dealing with a female colleague may look for any excuse to discount her.  Make sure your expertise is communicated and openly talk about your credentials.  Emphasize your role and importance within the company.  If you are leader of a business team make it clear you are in charge by ensuring your name is at the top of the team list.  Instruct other team members to defer to you when questions are directed to them but you are the person in charge.

Always dress and act professionally

    • you do not want to give any non-verbal signs that can be mistaken as anything but professional business conduct and appearance.  Therefore as much as possible dress conservatively and in restrained shades.
    • Display confidence and assertiveness but be careful not to appear overly bold or aggressive.

Be tolerant and understanding

    • accept compliments about your appearance.  Try not to become defensive about your gender.

Maintain your stature as a woman

    • there is a natural urge to want to be accepted as “one of the boys”.  However in most cultures men and women do have clearly defined roles and it will take unnecessary energy and time to be thought of apart from your gender.act reserved and formal with male colleagues.   Join in business dinners that are professional in nature but you do not need to participate in any additional activities outside of the business relations.

As a woman, it is possible to be just as effective and productive as men within international business relationships and situations.   If women establish their competence, experience and authority they will be taken seriously and treated professionally by executives from other cultures.

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Tina Varughese