A Guide to Dealing With Sexism Abroad for Female Expats

Working abroad has never been more popular among women. According to Price Waterhouse Cooper, women now make up 46% of British expats living abroad, and 71% of women have said they want to work outside their home country during their career.

But living abroad is challenging. Settling into a new expat life can be lonely, while getting to grips with day to day life in an entirely new country can be bewildering and frustrating.The banking system is different, the supermarkets don’t sell what you want, and those language classes you took are woefully inadequate. Trivial problems can escalate to become serious issues.

And if you’re a woman, there’s a chance you’ll have a whole different set of challenges.

As well as all the same problems male expats encounter, women’s lives are subject to restrictive government policies, oppressive laws, sexist customs, and outdated attitudes in many countries.

In some parts of the world, women are well represented in government, and yet seriously underrepresented in business. In others, equality between the sexes is enshrined in law, and yet women are still subjected to daily discrimination and exploitation.

When moving abroad, you may wish to consider questions of equality and women’s rights when choosing your new home.

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Surveys such as the Global Gender Gap Index can help with this. The Gap Index ranks 140 economies according to how well they are leveraging their female talent pool, based on economic, educational, health-based and political indicators.

Scandinavia consistently tops charts of the best places to be a woman, while the lower end of the scale tends to be dominated by nations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, where gender inequality is still entrenched.

While you may have a choice to go abroad in the first place, where you end up is not always up to you. Your company might choose for you, or perhaps the particular opportunity you are chasing is only available in certain locations.

Further, sexism need not be extreme and overt in order to be felt. Many women are surprised by discrimination and sexism when living abroad, as sometimes expectations do not match the reality.

It might be unwanted attention, or it could be difficulty dealing with male colleagues at work. Maybe you get told not to argue with a man, or someone makes a sexist joke. It might not even be directed at you personally. But sexism and discrimination can be difficult to deal with.

Sometimes, cultural differences play a part. Women from Western nations are accustomed to being able to wear whatever they want. In some more conservative nations, however, wearing a short skirt can be perceived as provocative, if not insulting and disrespectful. It’s tricky to toe the line between maintaining your own values and ensuring you don’t upset your new neighbours.

While many women feel frustrated and may want to confront sexism head on, fears for personal safety frequently limit direct action.

So, what’s a woman to do? More often than not, it depends on where you are. Generalising nations as ‘sexist’ or ‘not sexist’ is a dangerous activity. Every nation is different, just like every person is different, and it is important to keep this in mind when considering how to deal with your own personal experiences.

However, there are some general principles you can follow.

Research

Dealing with sexism is shocking. Dealing with sexism you aren’t prepared for is even worse.

When Allyn Faenza arrived in Ghana as a visiting student, she was warned at her university orientation that “Ghana is a male-dominated society, and we like it that way.” She told Feminists At Large of her shock at the attitudes of teachers and fellow students of both genders towards women’s rights.

Having worked as an English teacher in Germany with much success, Alex Pendleton was surprised by the reactions she received in Italy. “I had grown men refuse to be taught by me, because I am a woman,” she says on gooverseas.com.

While generalisations about the behaviour of an entire nation based on a few anecdotes can be misleading, researching women’s experiences can help you to gain some understanding of what you might face when you arrive.

Researching the cultural norms that drive and underpin the experiences of women in your new home country can help you learn what to expect. The more you know, the better equipped you will be to handle any situations that do arise.

Your research can also connect you with women who have been there before you. Seek their advice, as they may have already developed location-specific strategies that you can use.

Familiarising yourself with the rights and protections for women that are enshrined in law is a valuable exercise. This knowledge can help you face discrimination and sexism with confidence and certainty about where you stand legally. It will also give you an idea of how closely these laws are followed.

Even more importantly, if you are travelling to a country that does not have a good record for women’s rights, knowing precisely how limited your legal options are is well worth the trouble. While many nations have protections for women’s rights in place, in others women’s rights and behaviour are legally restricted. If you do run into problems, claiming ignorance of the law is unlikely to solve them.

Understand cultural differences

Attending to, and to some extent accommodating, cultural differences is a difficult road for many. It might feel like you are giving in, or pandering to unacceptably sexist social norms. You might even feel that, by complying, you are helping them to continue.

If you are living in another country, however, some level of acclimatisation and understanding is crucial to your own sense of safety and wellbeing.

And if you want to make a difference for women in your new home, aggressively resisting local culture will not be the best way forward.

Working in Colombia, UK expat Harriet Marsden encountered the ‘machista’ culture at work. Subjected to unwanted attention and harassment, which led to professional problems when she rejected a colleague’s advances, she took steps to make it stop.

In an article on pinkpangea.com she says, “my stress levels got to the point where I was forced to discuss the situation with my boss. She laughed me right out the door.”

In a culture where the workplace was in general far more relaxed and casual than what she was accustomed to, she found that the more official actions that she might have taken in the more formal UK workplace were not effective.

Harriet found that she needed to work within the local cultural expectations if she was to have any effective impact.

Another common problem faced by women of more liberal cultures is expectation of female dress. Many inhabitants of more conservative nations find bare legs, uncovered shoulders, or low cut tops to be both provocative and upsetting. In some cases, men may see western styles of dress as licence to harass the wearer.

Different dress codes can feel draconian, limiting, and unnecessarily restrictive. Overtly flouting local custom and insulting the populace, however, is going to cause you more issues in the long run, and may indeed prevent you from making any real progress in coming to any mutual understanding.

Understanding the cultural practices and expectations of your new home will help you decide the most effective response to any sexism that you encounter. Gaining such an understanding can also help you come to an educated decision about how you personally can interpret and make allowances for local customs.

Maintain relationships with fellow expats

Many women having trouble with sexism abroad have been faced with the tired old phrase, “that’s just how things are here”. It is exhausting, isolating, and can deeply affect your self-confidence if your own perceptions and values are consistently dismissed as overwrought, or a just another symptom of cultural divide.

It can be even more difficult when local women, too, do not see your experiences as problematic.

Cultural differences of all kinds are real, and while some are harmless, or curious, or fun, differences that manifest as sexism are much more difficult to absorb.

Maintaining relationships with your local expat community can help. Expats are much more likely to intuitively understand how you feel, and can help reaffirm the worth of your values if you are being dragged down.

On a lighter level, simply talking out your frustrations with someone without risk of offence or alienation can help you feel less isolated.

Of course, if you are living abroad, it is equally important to make connections with the local people. If you live too much in your expat bubble, you risk exacerbating the situation, and only strengthening your perception of the various cultural differences that divide you from your hosts.

Remain calm

It might be that you are labelled as mouthy for standing up for your opinions in an argument. Perhaps you’re told you’re ‘too bossy’ at work. Maybe you receive persistent unwanted attention when out in public. You could be told you can’t participate because you’re a woman.

Whether it’s in your personal or professional life, such direct confrontations with overt sexism can be maddening.

It is usually counterproductive, however, to lose your temper. At best, it may result in more marked dismissal of your opinions, at worst, it could lead to violent escalations.

In such cases, it is best to keep your cool, whether it is by maintaining a calm composure, or walking away from the situation.

Remaining calm and composed does not mean, however, that you need to suppress your opinions. It is simply a matter of considering carefully how you express them.

If you experience problems at work, it is important to apply the same rules you would in your home country. You are doing your job, and maintaining professionalism is even more important if you find yourself in a situation where your authority or ability is questioned due to your gender.

Talk to your friends

Talking to your local friends about your problems with sexism can have a number of benefits.

First, a local perspective may help you to understand the underlying causes of the sexism or discrimination you are facing. Understanding does not need to lead to acceptance, but it can lead to a more focused and better informed response.

Your local friends can also give you advice on what is considered normal in their country or city. Every place has its own perpetrators of extreme behaviour. If you know where the line is, your response can be more confident when someone steps over it.

Locals can also teach you how to best diffuse sexism if you encounter it. While some of their advice, such as pretending to be married, might not sit well, learning to speak the local behavioural ‘language’ will aid you in preventing unpleasant encounters from getting worse.

Another side effect of speaking to your local friends is that they, in turn, might start to understand you better.

Further, when faced with responses such as ‘boys will be boys,’ you have the opportunity to calmly protest. All change starts with small movements, and perhaps you could be a quiet influence for a more equal and less sexist world amongst your friends.

Have a plan

Dealing with sexism is much easier if you already have a plan.

While living in Peru, Vince found herself subject to frequent harassment on the street. Catcalls, whistles, and commentary were the norm. So she came up with a plan.

Taking her cue from blogger and comedian Jenna Marbles, Vince started pulling faces at catcallers. Not angry faces, or disgusted faces. Just the ugliest face she could possibly make.

And it worked. Some men responded with confusion, others with laughter, but in almost all cases, the harassment itself stopped.

Of course, the Jenna Marbles method is not applicable in all situations, or all countries, but the general principle stands. Assess your situation, consider what you know about the culture, and plan accordingly.

Your plan might not always work. But having one can help you deal with sexism confidently.

Support local women

All over the world, there are women who are working to improve their situations. Whether it’s a women’s cooperative hand-crafting local produce, or an activist group lobbying for changes in law and government policy, women are out there working for change.

If you’re feeling disheartened by the situation in your new home country, making an effort to get involved with groups who are working for a different future might make you feel better.

Your involvement could be as subtle as supporting businesses run by women. Or you could get involved with volunteering for organisations focused on fighting sexism.

Whatever you do, you can be sure you will be helping to make a genuine difference. You will meet other like-minded women, and by joining your efforts with theirs, increase the value of your battle against sexism and discrimination.

Have you faced sexism abroad? How did you deal with it? Let us know in the comments!

Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer


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