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All cultures have rules about acceptable interaction between men and women. While Americans generally operate as peers regardless of gender, in many other societies culturally dictated gender roles result in males controlling relationships with females. This is especially the case in traditional rural societies. It may be odd for some men from traditional societies to have female co-workers or a female boss. Likewise, it may be strange for a woman who has never been employed outside the home to have a male, other than her husband or father, giving her instructions.

In the workplace, cross-cultural gender issues can be very sensitive, but fairness and equality must be maintained. Some male employees may feel threatened or pushed around by a female supervisor. Similarly, male supervisors may find it very difficult to supervise female employees. Women from certain cultures are very shy or ashamed to talk to a man not from their immediate family — even if he is the boss. They may refuse eye contact, appear afraid or be unwilling to meet alone in a male supervisor’s office.

Question: Why does my new female employee refuse to shake my hand?
It is inappropriate for some women from cultures with strong religious beliefs, particularly Muslims and Buddhists, to come into physical contact with males from outside their family. Likewise, some Muslim men may not shake hands with a woman, even of higher authority or status. This is not a rule but a generalization that varies from person to person depending upon religious orthodoxy. The refusal to shake hands is not intended to be an insult or a rejection. Conversely, men and women from these cultures who do shake hands when meeting American friends or a new acquaintance are not denying their culture but rather adapting to meet the norms and traditional practices of American life. (See also Cultural Issues: Body Language and Personal Space.)

Question: As a female supervisor, why don’t some of my male employees respect my authority?
Men in many cultures never have to answer to a woman. The authority figure in most employment or family settings is the man. Some male employees may resent or discount the authority of a female supervisor. By not making instructions an issue of personal authority, female supervisors can remove themselves from a potential confrontation. Communicating “the company’s” instructions clearly, consistently and explicitly can prove to be less threatening and more successful.

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