At the time of writing this article, gender (in)equality in the world has been front and center of the global news cycle: The 2016 general election in the United States saw the topic of gender equality become one of the main narratives in comparing the candidates for President. Reports about terrorist attacks inevitably take a turn to remind us how other societies define the role of women. The ongoing gang rape series kept a spotlight on India for months. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements solidified and gave a voice to an ongoing issue. And human trafficking remains a problem across national and cultural borders, as one of our non-profit partners will tell you. All of this makes talking about gender roles in Western cultures an important, yet charged topic. We’ll do it anyway.
This is a story which has been unfolding at one of our clients. The identity of the company is irrelevant, suffice it to say that it is a German company with operations around the world and a site in the United States. So let’s simply call them The Firma. We have been contracted to conduct cultural training for their U.S. leadership team. A few weeks before a training session one of our contact at The Firma – a German native who has been living in the U.S. for many years and is married to an American – reached out to our trainer with a gender-related issue.
The Firma’s head office in Germany had been planning to produce a book about the company’s venerable and successful history, which stretches back to the early 1900s. This anthology was designed to be presented as a gift to The Firma’s team members and customers around the world. Nice marketing communication and employee engagement, one would think. If it weren’t for an illustration which irritated the female leadership of The Firma’s American subsidiary. One page of the book shows a cover of a promotional brochure which the company used in the 1970s. The page is dominated by the picture of a nude women in a lascivious pose who shows her bare behind and whose long hair barely covers her breast. The brochure goes on to explain how form follows function and how product design is shaped by, well, shape.
The female general manager of the The Firma USA plant was alarmed when she saw the advance copy of the book: “This is unacceptable. They want to distribute THIS throughout the company?” Her reaction was clear: “Why do we tolerate sexism?”
Chauvinism at work has a long tradition, especially in male-dominated industries. And The Firma is no exception. The way it has been displayed to people outside the companies is often via advertising. There are many websites dedicated to sexist advertisement throughout the decades. We refrain from reproducing The Firma’s ad in the image collage below and use “tamer” adverts as examples to illustrate this.
This episode doesn’t only highlight the fact that women are still experiencing different levels of gender discrimination, no matter where in the world they live. It also gave our a trainer an opportunity to include the topic of moral standards in the 0ne-day program with The Firma. In this context it is important to note that cultural trainers do not do the work of human resource departments. Setting corporate standards for equality is handled differently in different countries, industries, and cultures. An outside trainer’s role is not to enforce those rules or to judge them.
We do, however, educate and consult our clients on the different value systems they encounter when doing business globally. Regardless whether you think the brochure image is harmless or sexist, in a global company you need to be able to act and to respond with cultural savvy. While The Firma didn’t initially act on good judgement when they produced the book at their German HQ, they did respond with great cultural dexterity.
When they called our office to report of the shock they felt when browsing through the advance copy of the book, our trainer recommended that the U.S. branch get in touch with the marketing team in Germany. We advised the U.S. leadership to have on open conversation with Germany and let them know that nudity in a corporate (or any kind of public) context is frowned upon in the United States. It is an old and overused truism: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And it is still true. In this case, the German head office was unaware of how their American team would view the throwback to the 70s.
The most common U.S. attitude towards nudity and sexuality often clashes with that of many European cultures. Conservative American expats we worked with in past years expressed their concerns about being exposed to naked people on beaches, in parks, or in saunas in Europe. And most Europeans struggle to understand this American attitude – after all, aren’t the U.S. the world’s number one producer of pornography? What appears to be a contradiction is a rather shaky balance: what is socially acceptable in the United States can vary significantly depending on context. Despite the widespread use of the flawed melting pot idea, the culture in the country is far from being homogeneous. Having been shaped by several waves of immigration from different corners of the world, U.S. culture today is a multi-layered concept.
While the objectification of women appears to be increasing in America (think Kim Kardashian), we also experience a breaking of the glass ceiling across the board (think Sheryl Sandberg or Hillary Clinton). There seems to be a clear line drawn between what level of sexualization is acceptable at work and what’s trending in pop culture.
As a general rule of thumb: In a professional context no type of sexual content is acceptable in the U.S. For Europeans who draw a more ambiguous line this can be a blind spot, especially when they assume that pop cultural trends apply in other areas of the American experience.
Originally, since the book had already been printed, the American branch of The Firma was hoping to convince the marketing team in Germany to put a sticker over the questionable parts of the illustration. Our suggestion was to prepare an internal memo explaining to the global team that the brochure cover image wasn’t included in the book to offend anyone and that it isn’t necessarily perceived as offensive in Central Europe. This memo was to serve as a “pre-emptive apology” to those colleagues who found the image insulting.
Once the transatlantic dialog had been started, The Firma came to the realization that instead of putting a band-aid on a communications boo-boo it would be a better idea to reassess the communication strategy. As a result The Firma edited the book and printed a new version without the controversial image. This is a great example of a business who recognized that the perceived similarity between North America and Europe is largely an illusion. It is also a testimony to the power of cross-cultural coaching.
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