Globally surprised if your female

Female managers may be in for a rude awakening when they work with men in other countries the global village can serve up some nasty surprises for female IS professionals living or working abroad.

In the past year, I've spoken to dozens of female managers, each with a tale of culture clash - especially when she's the boss.

They all encountered difficulties. Happily, though, they found innovative ways to deal with their travails. In the absence of human resources departments and equal employment opportunity commissions, and often lacking even a trusted shoulder to cry on, they relied on their intelligence, ingenuity and wits to succeed.

Japan was the country most often cited for negative, sexist treatment of female IT managers. Though some of these stories go back 10 or 20 years, the women say the problem persists to some extent today.

Eva Chen, a Chinese-American who's now chief technology officer at Trend Micro Devices, has encountered barriers doing business in Japan since the 1980s.

She cites an ongoing problem: Entering a meeting room and having the men just look at her. "Finally, someone will ask, ‘Where's your boss?' " Chen remembers. Worse still can be the lack of support from colleagues. At after-hours business meetings, Chen's Japanese subordinates asked her not to tell their business partners that she was the boss. Initially, Chen went along with the ruse and even had special business cards printed listing her title as engineer. But she quickly began a ruse of her own. "I acted like the dutiful secretary taking notes. In reality, I wrote instructions for my male subordinates telling them how to negotiate the deal," Chen says. Slowly, trust developed. "People realised my real role, and they just started to live with it."

Things in Japan are changing, though sometimes in strange ways. Last year, a female IT consultant travelled to Tokyo with a male colleague for a client visit. "Joan" is intelligent and heavyset. Expecting to take a backseat in the respect department to her male co-worker, Joan was instead accorded unusual deference - for a bizarre reason. Her hosts crowded around her smiling and talking excitedly about how big she was. The Japanese were impressed with Joan's plus-size status. In this instance, at least, the usual derogatory connotations associated with being heavy were turned upside down. Fat equalled power.

In Sydney, a woman we'll call Audrey, working as an IT manager, dodged obstacles of a different sort in 1995 at a manufacturing firm. Her boss had no compunction about delegating authority to her. The problem: blatant sexual advances that included groping and chasing her around the desk. "It usually happened in the afternoons after he came back from a three-hour liquid lunch," Audrey says. "Shunning his advances didn't help, and neither did the fact that I was married. And forget about HR - he was also harassing the head of the HR department. It was considered macho and acceptable." On the last day of her employment, her boss visited her at home for a last try at seduction. "I finally slammed the door in his face," she says.

Carol, an American network administrator, took a three-month assignment last year to set up her company's new network in Cartagena, Colombia. She says she learned quickly to stand up for herself on the job. "My boss, a married man with a grandchild, offered to take me out for dinner the first night to help get me acclimated; the trouble was, I was the main course," Carol says. She fled the restaurant in short order, but the unwanted advances persisted on the job.

Such machismo isn't unheard of among Latin men, some of whom consider seduction to be all in a day's work. But the Colombian boss's amorous advances backfired when Carol decided to fight fire with fire. "Lorena Bobbitt became my patron saint. I pasted articles about her on my monitor. The next time he grabbed me, I slapped him in the face, started brandishing some thin wire cable and told him I'd unplug the whole network," she recalls. "After that, he stayed away. But it was a long three months."

Officially, all businesses say that type of blatant discrimination and sexism isn't tolerated in the workplace. But women managers doing business abroad know better. "Things are better in the '90s," Chen says. "But the bottom line: if something like this happens to you, you're going to have to deal with it yourself."

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Laura DiDio

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