Most Americans perceive macho behavior as a problem, but only as a "woman's problem." It occurs when men act in such fashion as to magnify their roles so as to diminish the roles of women. When U.S. managers go abroad, however, machismo may become a business problem for both sexes. What foreigners perceive as local custom can inhibit our commercial impact.

Most Americans feel that both sexes should get equal treatment. That, however, is a minority view. Most people in many other global regions see machismo as a good idea. Islamic nations come initially to mind, but Latinos, Africans, many Asians, and even Southern Europeans also segregate, control, and limit female behavior, particularly in commerce. In rural Bangladesh, for instance, no woman may even enter local markets, let alone sell goods or services. Many may never even leave their husband's compounds. Saudi women are forbidden to drive, even though many learn how to do so while in England. Indonesian women may not rent a car and Swahili women may not even ride bicycles.

Foreign forms of machismo become a problem when U.S. businesswomen seek assignments overseas. They then begin to wonder if these limits will apply to them. Their supervisors, often male, begin to wonder too—then hesitate to send these women lest they prove ineffective in the male dominated cultures. How many women are barred from decision-making posts abroad by a male boss concerned about machismo? Worse, how many women eventually decide not to go abroad, due to their own fears of gender discrimination? In every instance, both sexes suffer from overseas machismo, as do their firms.


Current research suggests that most male American senior executives privately believe in gender equality, both here and abroad. In one study, 60 percent of those polled felt a woman could successfully lead their operation overseas. Few U.S. executives, for instance, would approve a decision by Japan's Security Dealers that bars high-risk investment opportunities to female clients, or the refusal of most Bangladeshi banks to make any loans at all to women.

Nonetheless, that private disapproval becomes public tolerance, when faced with the realities of machismo abroad. As U.S. firms move overseas, those that seek acceptance into foreign business circles face the need to outwardly respect each local culture as host nationals define it. This applies even when foreign women are relegated to subordinate positions that American women who work in that culture cannot easily evade.

As a result, male chief executive officers (CEOs) may oppose sending female staff to such regions, out of concern for the reactions of foreign male clientele. Some fear foreign nationals would assign too little status to a U.S. woman manager, thereby demeaning both her and their firm. Others believe male clients might feel their own commercial status downgraded, merely by having to deal with our female decision makers. One American female manager once received a fax explaining that the male managers of a Middle Eastern firm would be willing to negotiate with her ("even if she was a woman"), if she in turn would forgo either shaking hands or looking directly into their faces.

In consequence, many male bosses just say "no," despite their private feelings, to women seeking posts of consequence abroad. In one study, 72.7 percent of the male managers surveyed felt that foreign versions of machismo posed barriers to the assignment of women overseas. One 1975 survey of 171 American firms reported that all but one of the women sent abroad stayed less that 30 days. In 1985, 3 percent of those American managers on long-term foreign assignment were female. In theory, that represents "improvement." In practice, the overseas potential of most female decision makers remains virtually untapped.


U.S. women who seek foreign posts in "macho regions" have two options. One is to accept the judgment of those executives who feel that gender bias in a potential market is too great. Here, the woman concerned may simply decide to "respect" the existing situation, either by staying home, accepting short-term (often 30-day) assignments, or restricting her overseas work to an in-house "safety zone," with routine tasks that limit contact with host nationals.

The bolder option, of course, is to challenge that same situation by researching machismo itself, analyzing a foreign variant in the same way as any other business problem. U.S. women seeking posts in any foreign region should certainly examine every aspect of host culture that may affect their work. In nations known for machismo, this should include male-female relationships. Such research should have three goals:

  1. Research local practice. By interviewing foreign nationals of both sexes, you should gradually find yourself able to learn:
    • What they do—how men and women are expected to behave.
    • Why they do this—historical origins of this behavior.
    • What they expect of you, an American female decision maker, within their business setting.
  2. Thereafter, predict potential conflicts—social and commercial situations in which their expectations will predictably clash with yours, simply because you are American.
  3. Finally, design specific ways for you to either neutralize or actively "manage" the macho elements of each potential conflict, by adjusting to foreign expectations in ways compatible with American self-respect.


Consider, as an illustration, the Islamic variations of male/female interaction that most Americans would describe as macho. Many Americans equate Islamic practice with the Arabian peninsula, forgetting that significant Moslem populations are found not only in the Middle East, but North, West, and Eastern Africa; East, South, Southeast, and Central Asia; on Europe's Mediterranean fringe, and even in U.S. cities such as Detroit.

Assume an American female manager is assigned to launch a first-time venture in a Moslem region. Obviously, so many diverse peoples practice their religion in varied ways. Many Moslem businessmen have had sufficient contact with Western cultures to adjust to Western concepts, including those pertaining to relationships between the sexes.

Nonetheless, many modern Moslems still embrace traditional ideals. Five of these remain so much a part of current Islamic culture that they impinge repeatedly upon contemporary commerce. It thus seems imprudent for U.S. businesswomen to ignore them. Rather, the American female manager who hopes to create relationships with male Moslem counterparts will find it useful to investigate the beliefs that follow.


Female virtue implies both spiritual and sexual purity. A woman is born with it. It is the spiritual counterpart to physical virginity, and thus subject to similar behavioral restrictions. Both Ird and virginity are intrinsic to being female. A woman must preserve both. That is a sacred duty, for once lost, neither can be regained. Thus every woman has two lifelong tasks. The first is to guard her own Ird. The second is to actively place herself under the additional protection of socially appropriate men (i.e., members of her family).


Sharaf is an outward reflection of male behavior. Unlike Ird. however, it can be lost and then regained. A man can gain or lose sharaf through acts of bravery, cowardice, generosity, inhospitality, etc. A proverb declares that each man wears sharaf upon his shoulders, like a brightly colored, tightly woven, constantly glittering cloak, for all of his (male) peers to admire. Without his cloak, he becomes an object of their scorn. He must, therefore, behave in such fashion as to retain both his own honor and that of his extended family.

A man's sharaf however, depends not only on his own behavior but that of every woman in his extended family—mother, sisters, daughters, nieces, cousins, etc. Should any of these commit an act that calls their virtue into question, the sharaf of every male in that family would be lost. Male honor, therefore, carries with it the obligation of lifetime protection of female kin, thereby preserving the collective sharaf of the extended family to which they all belong.


The need to constantly protect women is based on belief in the virtually unlimited power of sexual attraction. In contrast with contemporary America, this power is perceived as being far greater than any man or woman can resist, despite fear of punishment. Thus, traditionalists believe that whenever a man and woman find themselves alone, regardless of circumstance, they will be irresistibly drawn to one another. The man will be unable to restrain himself; the woman, unable to resist. Many Moslem cultures reflect this belief with a proverb: "When man and woman are alone, Shetan (Satan: the Devil) is also there." As a result (if the transgression becomes known), the sharaf of the woman's extended family is obliterated.


Traditional Moslems believe the consequences of such sexual attraction must be severe if sharaf is to be restored. To restore it, men must respond as tradition demands. This concept was expressed most clearly by an elderly Egyptian, as we debated Islam and Christianity while trapped in a Cairo traffic jam: "The curse of your Christianity is that it gives you (nothing but) choice. The beauty of our Islam is that is does not allow (us to have) choice. It guides us in all things. Thus, if adultery occurs we know what do. Our religion guides us into righteous acts."

Thus, in earlier times, since sexual transgression meant loss of family honor, men of that family were obligated to restore the loss by killing the woman (their own kin) who had caused it. Meanwhile, the woman's husband was obligated to kill his wife's seducer. This murder, in turn, would anger male kinsmen of the slain man, thereby triggering what might become an endless blood feud. Over time, as the inevitability and power of sexual attraction caused these incidents to multiply, more and more extended families might be drawn into such feuds. As a result, the consequences of sexual transgression could become so great as to damage the fabric of society. Wise men therefore, looked for an alternative.


It is to avoid triggering this unending cycle of violence that Moslem males protect women. It is to shield women from power stronger than themselves that they are physically segregated, socially secluded, geographically limited, economically controlled—and thereby removed from sexual temptation. Every woman has the right (and duty) to spend her life in safety and security, under the protection (and thus, jurisdiction) of a man. A virtuous woman, therefore, is one who dwells contentedly under the protection of her father, her husband (and his family), her sons and finally grandsons.

Conversely, a nonvirtuous woman is one who moves outside those overlapping jurisdictions, thereby inviting sexual desire, sexual contact, clan revenge, unending retaliation, and the disruption of society. Men can only provide this level of permanent protection by restricting female mobility, earning power, and independent action—thereby also reducing them to the level of perpetual children by ensuring their perpetual dependence. Viewed from this perspective, the decisions of Afghanistan's Taliban, in barring women from work, education, medical care from males, and even from going outdoors without a male relative is simply the expression of this traditional Islamic ideal, carried to its logical extreme.

Islamic tradition provides two tools to achieve this protective cocoon—physical segregation and visual segregation. Historically, the need for physical segregation has meant creating a dual society of protectors and protected, in which both sexes live essentially separate lives, both before and after marriage. Moslem peoples often strive for this ideal, sometimes with considerable innovation.

In Oman, for instance, the National University combines Western theories of coeducation with Islamic theories of gender segregation. Classes have separate doors for men and women, as well as segregated seating within. Buildings connect by slender skyways, built to let women pass between them unseen by male students, who walk between classes on the ground. Libraries not only post separate reading hours for each sex, but segregate the bookshelves—lest students pass notes to one another by hiding them in texts. The purpose of all this, as the Omani see it, is not feminine repression but mutual protection, both of the students and society.

Visual segregation, the second tool required to protect the sexes, forbids public display of the human form. Even the eyes must be restricted. Consider how traditional Moslems cope with public space within the twisting, narrow streets that form the core of many cities. In Zanzibar, for instance, men walk leisurely down the middle of each path. Women cling to the sides, eyes averted and down as men pass. Both sexes wear cultural blinders. Neither side can officially "see" the other. Loudly chatting groups of women invariably fall silent as men draw near. By virtue of their veiling, the women are publicly invisible.

Nevertheless, Americans who walk these streets may also wear cultural blinders. We see the system's outward vestiges: segregation, seclusion, restrictions. We see that Saudi women must walk behind men, may not drive, shop only in groups, and enter hotels only with letters of permission from male kin. We see the morals police accost anyone who seems to violate these restrictions. We do not see the system's purpose, however, and thus do not understand that men and women alike may support it—not to suppress femininity, but protect it. These feelings extend through much of the Moslem world, including regions Westerners consider "liberal." Consider the single Turkish female legislator who dared, in 1999, to wear her veil into the Turkish parliament, in effect demonstrating her support for traditional ways in a modern secular Turkish society. (Turkey banned the veil in 1922.) She was publicly reviled by nearly every male parliamentarian.

Consider the thoughts of a wealthy, educated, and quite Westernized Turkish woman, who declared, in a national magazine: "Modem Turks no longer believe we are a man's property, but we feel safer when we obey the laws of Islam and allow ourselves to be protected by men."

Most American businesswomen disagree, particularly when these allegedly protective restrictions are applied to them, while doing business abroad. The sheer number of foreign markets influenced by Islamic ideals, however, make this variant of machismo impossible to avoid. Moreover, too many similar systems operate in non-Islamic regions. Consider Japan, South Korea, Greece, Italy, Kenya, and the Ukraine. In different ways, each nation limits women within business. Our response should be to research male-female relationships anywhere we are assigned, to the point where we can understand the expectations of practitioners. Only after we see their side, can we adjust to it.


One reason to research machismo's foreign variants is to identify potential conflicts that may occur. Through research, you may foresee specific problems our female decision makers pose to foreign colleagues by adhering to American customs. You may then predict specific actions those same colleagues may take that we would label "macho." In such cases, advance knowledge of both behaviors may minimize or even neutralize each misunderstanding.

To illustrate, consider three possible conflicts between American businesswomen and Saudi businessmen. Each is predictable, in that our women can expect to trigger what they will consider macho responses, just by adhering to normal U.S. business practices.


Consider the problem posed for traditional Saudis by a woman who conducts business alone. All American women do this; indeed, they pride themselves on this independence, believing it reflects their competence in business settings. Nonetheless, women with feminist mind-sets may lose sight of the problems they cause in foreign settings, by refusing to adapt. Consider the female executive, sent to Saudi Arabia at a time when no unaccompanied women were allowed into the country. At the airport, she displayed a transit visa, walked unseen out an airport door, then made her way to her foreign contact's firm.

The decision seemed right, from an American perspective, in that it facilitated business for both sides. From a Saudi perspective, it was wrong in that it violated both legal and social norms. Legally, the woman was forbidden to be there, a situation that placed her Saudi contacts in legal jeopardy. Socially, a woman alone is perceived as either immoral or endangered. Away from appropriate male protection, she can be courted, harassed, or even abused. Once, in Libya, an American woman who left her hotel to go shopping alone was stoned by street boys until she fled back into her hotel. Were they trying to hurt her or (speaking no English) simply driving her back into a place of safety? American women see both erotic and hostile responses as proof of machismo. Islamic men may regard them as a protective alternative to social violence.


American women who enter foreign business settings can create images that will predictably enhance their physical attractiveness, by disregarding nuances in local dress. Consider the impact on host nationals that could be created by a U.S. female executive assigned to today's rural Iran. If generally aware of Islamic sensibilities, she might "cover up" by wearing a tailored business suit that covers arms and legs to wrists and ankles. To complete her intended image of efficiency, however, she might carefully style her hair, if only to avoid loose ends.

In so doing, she creates quite predictable problems. Key foreign colleagues might prejudge this woman as immodest and perhaps immoral. Traditional Moslems believe that clothing should not merely cover the female body but conceal its outlines. A tailored business suit, however, is meant to enhance the female figure. Similarly, female hair should be covered. In more conservative regions even hairlines are concealed. One Persian mullah has declared that women's hair gives off a unique gleam that entrances and thus seduces men. Western hairstyles, however, are created to emphasize the wearer's femininity. In consequence, both clothes and hair will predictably detract from the commercial image she means to present. Notwithstanding, to ask her colleagues to set aside these beliefs due to her nationality and corporate status would be as awkward as them asking her to set aside her own beliefs and don a veil.


The need to create credibility is prerequisite to every foreign venture. Americans and many Moslems resolve this in different ways. We start by sending relevant professional data to future foreign contacts in advance, including what we feel they need to know about ourselves. We then reinforce this first professional impression at an initial meeting, by turning instantly to business, using the discussion to establish our commercial expertise.

American women who follow this pattern, however, can pose problems for their Islamic hosts. Moslem businessmen establish credibility by taking private time to forge personal bonds. This can mean long hours spent in "personal" conversation—something American women bent on doing business might find disconcerting. It can also entail long hours of entertainment at restaurants, clubs, or private homes. But what if male-female behavioral codes prohibit all aspects of this process? How and where do these Moslems form social relationships, when barred by custom to socialize with those representatives we send them?

Faced with this conflict, some clients prefer not to deal with U.S. women at all. When forced to do so, they retreat into formality, providing empty courtesies to female representatives, and substantive conversations for male colleagues. We condemn this as macho. They regard this as a display of respect for their tradition. Since habits rarely change when crossing foreign borders, our businesswomen may create this type of conflict just by behaving like Americans.


Once potential conflicts are identified, outbreaks of machismo can be managed, both before and as they occur. To do this, both the overseas appointee and her corporate superiors should work in tandem to promote her commercial image in the foreign setting. In Islamic areas, for instance, the four strategies outlined below may prove useful.


Research the most probable cultural pitfalls. Before departure, become your company's in-house expert on the assigned region. In Moslem areas, that means beginning to explore not only history, geography, culture, and language, but religion—including the Koran. Few Moslem males believe our businesswomen even think about these things. Yet, displaying even the most basic interest in them can undermine a sexist stereotype by creating the first feelings of mutual respect and personal empathy that Moslems everywhere consider the prerequisites for doing business.

An American female colleague, for instance, found herself unable to speak Arabic grammatically during her stay in the United Arab Emirates, despite persistent study. Nonetheless, impressed by her efforts, local women taught her the formal "courtesy phrases" used traditionally by "proper" women in conversation with men, to convey female respect. Male business contacts proved delighted when she used them appropriately, thereby contradicting their earlier stereotype of American women as inherently disrespectful to males. They subsequently held her in far higher personal (and thus commercial) esteem.

I found that same degree of empathy could be created by inquiring into either local or theological aspects of Islamic history. Knowing too little to converse with authority, I turned what I had learned into questions. As a result, my very lack of knowledge pleased every Moslem contact, permitting them to assume the dual roles of tour guide and teacher. Here too, an earlier stereotype of U.S. ignorance and arrogance was replaced by common interest in a mutually cherished culture—once again an Islamic prerequisite for conducting business.

Commercial empathy intensifies when we show interest in the Koran. To Moslems, it is more than a "holy book." It is the direct communication of a higher intelligence (Allah), providing mankind with a practical guide to every facet of human behavior. In fact, it is not a "book" at all; it is a "reading," to be read aloud in classical Arabic, where the resonance and eloquence of the chanted words are said to attain the level of exquisite poetry. Consider that description. It is astounding to Moslems everywhere that we Americans can never find the time to pick up, open, and read something of such extraordinary beauty, let alone of such extraordinary significance to one-fifth of the world's population. To learn (even a little) Koran, therefore, allows you to ask the type of perceptive questions that allow you to learn more. To apply Koran to modern business situations, under the guidance and leadership of male hosts, may significantly shift their initial gender stereotyping to opinions more appropriate to your professional expertise.


Once foreign expertise has been acquired, it should be used to create sufficient on-site status to allow the new appointee to do her job. This means the appointee and her corporate supervisors must become a team. On making an overseas appointment, the CEO can first assist the appointee to create a high on-site status by providing her a higher hob-title, to match whatever level of decision making will be required.

The CEO's next step is to assure that prior knowledge of both her title and professional expertise arrives on-site before the appointee herself. Initially, this means he or she must:


Thereafter, you (the appointee) take over. Begin by interviewing each U.S. contact supervisors provide, as well as those you develop on your own. Ask each what you should know, why, and who you should meet on arrival—including those high-level colleagues with whom introductions have been arranged. Next, contact these individuals by e-mail. Introduce yourself, the firm, your mission abroad, and the time you'll arrive. Then, request professional advice and personal guidance upon arrival. Finally, ask if you can be of service to them before leaving the United States. Your goal, simply, is to place each one under obligation to you.

Plan to spend the first few weeks upon arrival interviewing and visiting (to the degree each culture allows) each contact you have made. Use your on-site inexperience as a business tool to learn the local rules for doing business. Use the social interaction as a means to meet key players in your field. Forget your product for this period. Put it aside, along with your time schedule and marketing plan. Only by investing the time to acquire expertise on-site can you reinforce the initial status provided by your firm, to the point where you are ready to do business.


You can further enhance on-site status by "localizing" two aspects of your business image to conform with foreign feelings: feminine appearance and behavior. This does not mean adopting local dress. To do that undermines the professional image you mean to present. Nonetheless, perceptive inquiry into local expectations may lead to both physical and behavioral changes that can visibly enhance your potential for commercial progress.

The tailored business suit, mentioned earlier, should be replaced by a long, loose-fitting dress. High heels should be lowered. Makeup should be minimized. The hair, hairline, forehead and even the throat should be covered by a scarf. These changes may seem obvious, but only if prior research sensitizes you, both to local expectations and the reasons they exist.

The American female vocal pattern may also create conflict. Behaviors that we consider feminine may be perceived as masculine abroad. Consider how our women have been trained to use their voice in business situations: to compel attention (and thus, respect) it should grow deeper, louder, and more decisive—the better to be both listened to and reckoned with. In contrast, many cultures restrict female voices to higher pitch, lower volume, and softer tones. Japanese women, for instance, use a special "woman's language," with different grammar, higher pitch, and lower volume. Similarly, Moslem women lower their voices and soften their tones, to reflect their femininity.

In these settings, therefore, American women face a two-edged sword. The quasi-masculine vocal traits they need at home constrain them when abroad. Nor are they culturally able to adapt: Which American woman would "raise her vocal pitch and drop the volume" on masculine request? In consequence, Moslem men may react negatively to what they perceive as masculinity, while U.S. women label those reactions as machismo. Once more, only prior research can suggest more subtle changes that can modify one's vocal image while retaining inner dignity.


In areas where men hesitate to work alone with women, it may prove useful to work with male partners, both real and symbolic. One option is to send male-female project teams abroad, in which the man both implements his part of the venture and facilitates hers. Here, the man might assist his partner in a symbolic capacity, accompany her both when her expertise is in demand (in offices, during working hours) and when cultural norms (such as evening gatherings) prohibit her to appear alone.

In Oman, for instance, day-long business sessions may end with invitations from the host for the U.S. representatives to visit private homes. Though politeness requires such invitations to include everyone, it is in fact a gathering of males, all related to the host and therefore interested in making contact with his (male) foreign guest. To ask a single woman becomes awkward. A foreign pair, however, may find a local welcome. The symbolic presence of the man makes the woman "unavailable" for courtship, thus allowing her to develop business ties in ways no different than her partner.

U.S. men may also have symbolic value as fictitious husbands. Moslem women gain status through marriage and the birth of sons. Thus American assigned to these regions who are single or divorced may find it useful to imply married status, complete with ring and pictures of an alleged spouse and children. A female colleague did this in the United Arab Republic without telling lies. The ring spoke for itself, while she displayed the pictures (her brother and his sons) with the phrase "my family." The deception illustrates a larger point: in cultures where unattached women cause male anxiety, even a symbolic male presence (in a picture) can transform the status of an American female manager so as to move more closely towards conformity to local custom.


The American tradition of tolerance does not extend to machismo. We intensely disapprove of customs that limit women, even if motivated by desire to protect them. Nor do we leave our own biases behind once sent abroad. Nonetheless, when dealing commercially with such behavior, it seems commercially prudent to move beyond passive disapproval and toward active management. The tool that makes such management effective is prior research—examining specific variants of this behavior as we examine any foreign business problem—then adjusting our behavior in ways that still sustain our dignity. Thus, when working with Islamic businessmen, American businesswomen should consider four guidelines:

Above all, do not be held back by your biases. Many of us privately condemn machismo. Some fear it, when assigned abroad. These beliefs are our prerogative. Beyond these fears and disapproval, however, whole worlds of foreign thought and feeling cry out for further exploration, including those of which we disapprove. To do business in their world, we must explore them, transforming both our private disapproval and passive tolerance into active inquiry and professional concern. Only then will we be able to "manage" machismo so artfully as to prove acceptable to both our colleagues and ourselves.

SEE ALSO : Gender Discrimination ; Women in Business

[ Jeffrey Fadiman , with

Evylyne Meier ]


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