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Doing business in Latin America: Managing cultural differences in perceptions of female expatriates.

International assignments are an important step in the career path of today's managers (McClenahen, 1997), and companies are sending managers on global assignments at an ever-increasing rate (Dobryznski, 1996). As a result, a company's ability to prepare managers for international assignments assumes greater importance in ensuring the success of expatriate managers. It is widely accepted that an understanding of cross-cultural differences is a critical component in such preparation.

Caligiuri and Cascio (1998) suggested that an understanding of cultural differences is especially important in the success of female managers in expatriate assignments. Host country beliefs and expectations about the role of women in society and business have the potential to create a unique situation for female, as opposed to male expatriates, and define to some extent the business environment in which female managers will operate while on international assignment (Fernandez & Barr, 1993). Just as attitudes toward women as managers sometimes limit the success of female managers in U.S. firms (Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, 1995), gender stereotypes in host countries have the potential to limit the success of female expatriates. Arguably, it is naive to assume that female expatriates have the same chance as male expatriates to succeed in every foreign assignment.

To the extent that such stereotypes exist, awareness of these perceptions allows female managers to develop strategies that offset negative attitudes, such as those identified in the Ragins, Townsend and Mattis (1998) survey: working harder than their male peers, developing unique skills and expertise, and developing "managerial styles that are not masculine or feminine but are acceptable to male colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates" (p. 31). International assignments, however, may involve different sets of perceptions about female managers, depending on the country to which one is assigned. Without specific knowledge of differences in cultural perceptions, female managers are not in a position to develop comparable strategies for success, nor companies to develop appropriate strategies to maximize the effectiveness of female expatriate managers.

Caligiuri and Cascio (1998) further suggested that predeparture training for female managers should include accurate information about host country attitudes toward women as managers. Knowledge of cultural differences in perceptions of female managers would provide a useful basis for such training and help female expatriates understand and anticipate obstacles they may face in their assignments. Studies have been conducted in a number of countries regarding attitudes toward female managers in those countries, but empirical research on such perceptions held by Latin Americans is absent from the literature. We found this surprising since opportunities for international business between the U.S. and Latin American countries have expanded dramatically in recent years with the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Therefore, the goal of the present study was to add to the existing knowledge through an empirical investigation of Latin American perceptions of women as managers.

Hispanic Perceptions of Women as Managers

Existing research supports the distinctiveness of the Hispanic culture from the North American culture (Romo & Romo, 1985). With respect to sex-role stereotypes affecting women as managers, two fundamental values permeate most Hispanic cultures: the importance of familia (family), and the concept of machismo (Muller & Rowell, 1997). Traditional family values promote the unquestioned authority and supremacy of the father and the contrasting role of self-sacrifice of the mother. Machismo is the ideology of manliness that confers privilege on men, whose role is to protect the weaker and more vulnerable women. One would expect, therefore, an even greater resistance to women in the relatively masculine role of manager in Hispanic cultures as opposed to the U.S.

Stephens and Greer (1995) interviewed Mexican, U.S., and third-country nationals who worked as managers, as well as Mexican and U.S. trade officials, and collected information through a survey of Mexican managers participating in an MBA program. Stephens and Greer found that women have a difficult time gaining respect in managerial jobs, and that most male managers would not send female employees on business trips alone. One female executive interviewed noted that because of prevailing social mores, Mexican employers tended to hire "married men first, then single men, single women, and finally (and rarely) married women" (p. 50). This pattern of workforce participation is consistent across most Latin American countries (Arriagada, 1995).

In their 1997 exploratory study of 12 senior-level female managers in Mexico, Muller and Rowell found that discriminatory behavior and cultural stereotypes were the most common obstacles to advancement. Representative barriers included stereotypical and traditional attitudes, direct challenge of competence and authority by male employees, patronizing language by male superiors, and backbiting and subtle pressure from female employees. Assertive behaviors, in contrast to the traditional expectation of women as submissive, were the primary strategy developed to overcome these obstacles.

Gowan and Trevino (1998) examined gender differences in Mexican-American attitudes toward family and career roles in 140 Mexican-American students. Results indicated that males were more likely to hold traditional views of females in the workplace than were females.

The studies just reviewed are representative of the research conducted to date on perceptions of sex differences in Latin American cultures. One of the limitations of the existing research is the lack of empirical research directly assessing perceptions of female managers held by people living in Latin America. To extend previous research, we posed the following question: What are the attitudes toward women as managers held by Latin American nationals?

Survey Methodology and Findings

Participants in this study were 218 undergraduate, degree-seeking, business administration students at a large university in the eighth region of Chile. The sample consisted of 74 women and 144 men. Spanish was the primary language for the participants, who were in either their third or fourth year of study toward the Chilean equivalent of a U.S. bachelors degree. The mean age was 25.96, with 35.8% having part- or full-time employment.

We used the "Women as Managers Scale" (WAMS; Peters, Terborg, & Taynor, 1974; Terborg, Peters, Ilgen, & Smith, 1977) to measure participant perceptions. Participants responded to a set of 21 questions (11 positively worded and 10 negatively worded) reflecting different stereotypes of women in managerial positions (e.g., women holding jobs that require responsibility, ambition, and aggressiveness) using a Likert-based format from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The instrument has been used in a broad range of studies, with a broad range of samples, including human resource managers (Owen & Todor, 1993), MBA and undergraduate students (Ware & Cooper-Studebaker, 1989), library and information science masters degree candidates (Murgai, 1991), male and female managers (Crino, White, & DeSanctis, 1981), and employees of an industrial distributing company (Terborg et al., 1977). Support for the instrument's reliability and validity is presented by Peters, et al. (1974) and Terborg, et al. (1977) for North American samples.

To administer the WAMS to the Chilean participants we had to translate it to Chilean Spanish. We used the commonly employed translation/back translation method (Brislin, Lonner, & Thorndike, 1973; Candell & Hulin, 1987; Guthrey & Lowe, 1992; Hwang, Yan, & Scherer, 1996). The first step was to have a bilingual (English-Spanish) member of the research team translate the WAMS into Chilean Spanish. A second bilingual member of the research team reviewed the translation to assure semantic equivalency of some words and phrases to the target language. These two individuals then reviewed the translated instrument to identify any discrepancies.

Second, the instrument was translated back from Spanish to English by a third bilingual member of the research team to assure equivalency. Discrepancies in back translation were reviewed by all three research associates. Third, after any translation differences were resolved the instrument was administered to a small group of individuals in Concepcion, Chile, whose only language was Spanish. These individuals were then interviewed by one of the researchers to determine their comprehension of the translated instrument. Minor adjustments were made before the WAMS was given to the participants.

Scores on the WAMS ranged from 61 to 147, with a mean of 119.42 (out of a possible 147), with a standard deviation of 16.26. The higher the score on this instrument, the more positive the perception of women as managers. However, the difference between the means for male versus female participants was significant (p<.00l), with mean scores for male participants lower than the mean for female participants: 113.67 versus 130.59, respectively. In addition, the range for the male participants was much broader (61 to 147) than that of the female participants (105 to 147). Thus, although the results of the current study showed a relatively positive perception of women as managers overall, they also indicated a gap between male and female participants, with men holding much more negative perceptions.


The results of the current study add to current information by contributing empirical evidence of negative stereotypes of female managers held by Latin American men. Still, it would be premature to generalize beyond the parameters of the sample population at this point for several reasons. First, cultural differences vary from country to country, and it would be an oversimplification to assume that the Chileans' perceptions represent all of Latin America. Second, results were obtained from business students. While perceptions of practicing managers and diverse groups of workers may be different from those of business students, it is reasonable to consider the student perceptions as a starting point for future research (Greenberg, 1987). Finally, conclusions are based on use of the Peters, et al. (1974) instrument, which measures a specific set of perceptions and may not tap the entire domain of stereotyped behaviors and feelings.

Despite the limitations of the study, the finding of differing perceptions reinforces the need for companies to make concerted efforts to reduce the impact of host country nationals' prejudice on female expatriates' managerial effectiveness. To combat the stereotypes, companies must develop strategies that accomplish at least one of two things. First, they can provide evidence to the host country nationals suggesting that the assumption underlying the stereotype, that women are less competent managers than men, is not true of all female managers. Second, companies can provide evidence that the individual female expatriate manager is an exception to the stereotyped expectation. A review of recent research on expatriate assignments suggests several possibilities for developing such strategies in terms of predeparture training and in-country support.

Predeparture training of female expatriates provides an opportunity before the international assignment to preview what might be expected when arriving in the host country. Table 1 provides examples, drawn from the literature, of six predeparture strategies. Notice, that each intervention is targeted at preparing the female expatriate manager, both cognitively and behaviorally, before leaving for the new assignment. These strategies may involve role-playing, face-to-face discussions, and coping skills in helping the manager prepare herself for what may be encountered from her colleagues, co-workers, and clients. Moreover, they involve former and current expatriates in the preparation process. Anticipating what lies ahead can help build confidence, practice behaviors, and understand the realities of the international assignment in advance.

In-country support assists the female expatriate manager during the international assignment. Table 2 includes a set of seven support strategies drawn from the literature that can assist the manager throughout the tenure of her work abroad. These strategies require interventions in the host country to serve as an organizational system of support. Rather than focusing primarily on the female expatriate herself, the focus is on co-workers, organizational structure, roles, and communication, as well as the socialization process of the expatriate. Thus, these strategies enable the organization, over time, to build a supportive culture to reduce negative stereotypes and create more positive perceptions of and behaviors toward female expatriate managers.

In our discussion we have chosen to focus on one case in Latin America. Results from the study showed differences between genders on how women are viewed as managers in Chile. The focus of this study was on only one country outside the U.S., and these results require further research to determine the extent of their genralizability. However, the important finding is that women will encounter different ideas about their roles as managers during expatriate assignments. Specifically, they should anticipate that co-workers, managers, and clients in the host country may hold negative stereotypes about their role. Only through dedicated efforts aimed at preparing the female manager before expatriation and the development of in-country support systems can we make international assignments more effective for both women managers and our organizations.

Table 1

Strategies for Managing Host Country Nationals' Prejudice Towards Female Expatriates: Predeparture Training of Female Expatriates

* Norms, values, and traditions that the host nationals possess regarding women to provide realistic expectations (Caligiuri & Cascio, 1998; Caligiuri & Tung, 1999)

* Degree to which host nationals' attitudes toward women as managers apply to expatriate women (Caligiuri & Tung, 1999; Adler, 1987); how to cope with being different from host national women (Caligiuri & Cascio, 1998)

* Effective responses for situations where host country nationals' behaviors reflect prejudice toward women as managers (Caligiuri & Cascio, 1998)

* Recognizing behaviors that, when exhibited by female expatriates, could be misinterpreted (Caligiuri & Cascio, 1998) or offensive (Adler, Brody, & Osland, 2000)

* Arrange for contact with host nationals prior to the start of the expatriate assignment; bringing key host nationals to the home country for a meeting enables the company to emphasize the female expatriate's high status within the company (Caligiuri, 2000; Caligiuri, Joshi, & Lazarova, 1999)

* Arrange for contact with female managers who have successfully completed expatriate assignments (Adler, 1984a; Adler, Brody, & Osland, 2000; Antal & Izraeli, 1993; Mendenhall & Stahl, 2000)

Table 2

Strategies for Managing Host Country Nationals' Prejudice Towards Female Expatriates: In-country Support

* Give host nationals greater exposure to successful women in the organization and emphasize the competence of the individual female expatriate (Caligiuri & Cascio, 1998)

* Provide training about stereotypes to host nationals who are going to be interacting with the female expatriate before she arrives, sending a clear message that the company expects them to help her succeed (Adler, 1984a; Caligiuri & Cascio, 1998; Vance & Ring, 1994)

* In cases where the company is certain that the host nationals' negative stereotypes are fixed, partner the female expatriate with a male colleague (Caligiuri & Cascio, 1998)

* Give the female expatriate a title that reflects high position power to create and reinforce host nationals' perceptions of her competency (Adler, 1984b; Caligiuri & Cascio, 1998)

* Provide an in-country support network or mentor to provide on-site guidance for matters of protocol and unanticipated situations that arise (Adler, 1984a; Caligiuri, Joshi, & Lazarova, 1999; Mendenhall & Stahl, 2000)

* Establish and communicate policies worldwide regarding fair and equal treatment of all employees (Caligiuri & Cascio, 1998)

* Create a critical mass by sending more than one woman to each foreign location (Adler, 1984a)


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Dr. Owen, a professor of management, teaches organizational behavior, human resources management, and strategy and has published numerous articles in these areas. Dr. Scherer, also a professor of management, teaches organizational behavior and human resource management. He has published articles on performance improvement, occupational stress, and safety management.
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Author:Owen, Crystal L.; Scherer, Robert F.
Publication:SAM Advanced Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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