Culture Clash


What do men
and women do in
different countries?

After just three months in Stockholm, Sweden, Steve Fisher noticed many aspects of work and social interactions that differed from his previous experiences in Tallahassee, Fla. Steve had accepted a managerial job with a Swedish pharmaceutical company that was planning expansions into North American markets. Steve was single, 27 years old, and was picking up conversational Swedish quickly.

Steve observed that there were many female bosses. Reading the newspaper, he also discovered there were large number of female government officials. He met women whose husbands stayed home and raised the children. When a woman was about to give birth, he heard about government programs for both maternity and paternity leave. After meeting single women in the workplace, some seemed very comfortable asking him out to dinner and to theatrical presentations. From friends, he heard that women often propose marriage rather than wait for men they have been dating to take the lead.

The differences Steve observed follow from cultural guidelines summarized by the term, "low gender differentiation."

The best way to understand this term is to start with the question, "What do men do and what to women do in this country?" Beyond biological facts surrounding procreation, cultures with low gender differentiation have few distinctions to mark what women can do and what men can do. In high gender differentiation cultures, there are many distinctions that have a long tradition. For example, men are the bosses and women are the secretaries. Men go to work and women stay home and raise children. Men take the lead in initiating dating relationships and are expected to propose if marriage is to follow. In low gender differentiation cultures, roles beyond procreation are shared by men and women. If men have traditionally behaved in certain ways, women feel comfortable behaving the same way if they desire to do so.

Sweden is a low-gender differentiation culture. If Steve is familiar with males and females carrying out different roles in the United States, he is likely so see fewer distinctions in Sweden.

After giving birth, for example, men often stay home to raise the children, especially if women have jobs with greater earning capacity. One key to understanding the cultural difference is that there is no disapproval or "raised eyebrows" when people hear about male and female roles. At parties, people are comfortable talking with househusbands and do not cut conversations short to find someone more interesting and important. Marketing campaigns for household products target consumers by featuring attractive men in aprons who are pictured cleaning up the house. The ads are not meant to be humorous. If men are the consumers who use and buy household products, they become the targets of serious advertising campaigns.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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