Sexist behaviour abroad can leave female expats intensely shocked and frustrated, a recent BBC report highlighted. Paradoxically, this frustration can help unlock greater intercultural awareness, says cultural coach Richard Forrest.

Shock and surprise
From unwanted male attention in Georgia, to not being allowed to share an office with a male colleague in Saudi Arabia; the BBC report mentioned several examples of sexism that female expats endure. Forrest, a Canadian who’s lived and worked in Europe, the USA and Dubai, has heard similar accounts from expat partners he’s worked with. He recalls the story of one female expat in Brazil who complained to a male hotel manager after outside noises had ruined a good night’s sleep. To her shock and surprise, the manager went on the offensive and made it clear that she should know her place in that country - ‘whatever that meant’. Only when her male partner arrived was the situation resolved.

Precursors to learning
“The story occurred several years ago but still carries quite raw feelings of anger and mixed emotions for the expat partner,” says Forrest. “To this day she feels unjustly treated and angry toward that culture. Especially as she said ‘It was Brazil, and I just didn’t expect that behaviour in such a nice place!’ As a cultural coach, I look at such tensions and frustrations as the precursors to learning and reaching bi-cultural awareness. If you recognise you are frustrated, you can be triggered to the idea that your mind is telling you it needs to grow, even if you find it hard or impossible, given your circumstances.”

Game changer
So, paradoxically, intense feelings of cultural frustration actually present expats with a unique opportunity to better understand the culture of their host country, according to Forrest. Once you recognise your frustration, you can work through your feelings - either by yourself or with help from a coach - and improve your intercultural competence, which is the ability to cross divides and thrive in multiple cultures. “It can be an expat game changing experience,” promises Forrest, who has worked with many Global Connection members. “As expats, we have a unique opportunity to truly grow as individuals, in a way that non-expats can simply never experience first hand.”

Part of a series: coping with sexism abroad
This item is part of a series on the sensitive topic of coping with sexism abroad and the importance of intercultural awareness and intercultural skills in this context.

Karen Glerum
Global Connection
Expat Partner Support

Source: Global Connection’s media for spouses (B2B subscription) and HR.

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