05/27/99- Updated 05:15 PM ET


Tips for women working overseas

By Marian McMahon Stanley, Special to Gannett News Service

One night a few years ago, I got a call from two senior women managers working for me in Korea. Half seriously, they asked if they could come home. Why? Was there a problem? ''Women are lower than dogs here.'' Long pause. ''They eat dogs.''

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They forged ahead and got the job done. But the incident was a reminder that women working overseas face many of the issues they have historically had in business, only more so — depending on where they are posted.

Just 10% to 15% of overseas assignments with U.S. multinational firms were filled by women last year, according to surveys by Windham International and the Employee Relocation Council.

The disadvantages of being a woman in an international assignment are often exaggerated, but they are real. Here are some practical tips to make the job a bit easier, from women who have been there:

Before you get on the plane, make sure you have a title that gives you immediate credibility in the culture you are entering. Clarify the support structure and the reporting relationship that will help you get the job done. As a woman, you're likely to have enough issues overseas without being organizationally powerless.

Insist on cross-cultural training. The global business world and culture is very Americanized, but don't be fooled by the veneer. There are deep fundamental societal and cultural differences. Unfortunately, many of them will have to do with what your role as a woman in society should be.

Don't assume that because people look like you, they have an American mindset. Even if the British, French or German manager looks like your cousin and might be Euro cool in style, he is likely to be much more traditional about women and hierarchical than his U.S. counterpart.

Get lots of relocation and family support from your company. If you have a spouse, get special support, including placement help. If you have children, you'll need additional relocation support. For single women, club memberships and extra trips home can ease the hardship of a foreign assignment.

Maintain a sense of humor and grace in the face of genuine curiosity about your personal life. If you're asked if you have your husband's permission to travel and work, say something like, ''He's very supportive but he does worry about me, so I call every evening. Here is his picture.'' Most non-Western cultures respect you more, especially if you are a woman, if you let them know that family is important.

Include your family. In many countries, bringing your spouse and/or children with you occasionally as you travel indicates good values. This can enhance the business relationship.

Don't try to memorize every local courtesy and custom. The best advice I ever got on this subject was from a veteran line manager in Hong Kong who said to just be polite according to my best instincts and people would understand. Also important, as a woman in a foreign country: Be sure that light American humor and outgoing friendliness is not mistaken for flirtation.

Dress appropriately and conservatively. Business attire is easy these days with pantsuits and comfortable long skirts. When in doubt, frumpy is better than sexy.

Be sensitive about out-of-office appointments. Unless you have a special, longstanding relationship with a local counterpart or business person, be cautious about asking a man for a one-on-one dinner engagement. It may send the wrong signal or make him or his wife uncomfortable, and that could affect your business. Better to invite his wife or one of your local managers along.

If there are situations in which you just cannot operate successfully or you feel as if you've been catapulted back to the 13th century, have a male subordinate handle the territory or negotiation under your guidelines.

Otherwise, be yourself. You're not one of the guys, so forget the Sigourney Weaver approach. You're inherently less threatening than your American male counterparts and, in many markets, this gives you an advantage. Use it to work difficult issues in a more collaborative way.

Take care of your health. With sensible precautions, you are not likely to catch a deadly disease in your travels. You are quite likely to run yourself down with jet lag and jammed schedules. Travel sensibly. Arrive a day before meetings, get sleep. If you have time between dealer visits or events, consider taking a (gasp!) nap. Exercise, eat lightly or vegetarian, drink lots of water, get major sunlight.

Don't try to cram everything into a small suitcase. You're living on the road; small pleasures and comforts help make it livable. So bring the extra pair of shoes, books, a picture of the family, your portable CD and all the music you like.

Don't feel you have to defend American life. You're there to sell medical diagnostic equipment or soap powder or athletic shoes. You are not an apologist for the quality of American family life or schools or working mothers or wayward presidents or the gun lobby. Until you learn the art of diplomatic banter, make noncommittal general remarks and use humor to deflect difficult conversations.

Appreciate. You're in a new environment — relish it. If your hosts say something negative about their country, never agree. It's a test. Only comment on the positive. If you can't make sympathetic peace with the problems some of these countries are struggling with like poverty or unsanitary conditions by Western standards, you shouldn't be working there. Open up and enjoy the food, the language, the music, the history — everything — and let people know it.

Remember, international mobility is increasingly important to career development and advancement. Without it, women will be at a significant disadvantage in competing for the most senior leadership assignments of the future. They will also miss some interesting lifetime adventures.

Marian Stanley is the founder of Stanley Global Resources, an international consulting firm based in Concord, Mass. Before that, she was Polaroid's corporate vice president for Eurasia-Africa.