The Global Woman: Managing risk factors female business travelers face requires preparation, awareness and unique understanding

BTE  – Business Travel Executive Magazine  (Global Woman)
June 2014
By: Fatima Durrani Khan

While women have made great advances in education and employment, business travel can still pose specific concerns. As part of a company’s duty of care towards all its employees, risk managers should ensure that the unique needs of female travelers are always taken into consideration. Women face different and sometimes more complex security risks than men. Some reports state that statistically, sexual harassment, sexual assault and handbag theft are more likely to occur to women than men. However, there are also cultural and social norms in various countries which view women differently than in the United States, and women should not only be aware of them, but be prepared to meet them.

“In most cases, I hold the view that the challenges we face with international business travel are gender neutral,” says Michelle (Mick) Lee, founder of WomenIn Travel (WINiT), a network of men and women created to support the development and promotion of women at all levels in the business travel industry. “Women and men both need to educate themselves on local laws and customs, ensure that they adjust their approach out of respect for each culture and familiarize themselves on high risk locations. That said, there is no dispute that physically, women are at a disadvantage when it comes to safety and security.”

As part of duty of care, risk managers should invest in creating tailored training programs for the company’s female employees who travel abroad, by evaluating what the specific risks are and how to mitigate them, and then developing multiple layers of support to meet those risks. However, trainings should aim to empower the female business traveler with the tools she needs to protect and take care of herself, rather than confining her to a business protocol full of do’s and don’ts. This latter method eventually becomes inflexible; in a business environment where women must perform under tight time constraints, these restrictions can often affect productivity.

Assess Risks in Advance
Preparing female business travelers in advance is key; this includes equipping them with information about the destination, such as basic geography and trouble spots, as well as how to access those who can help in case of an emergency. It may even be beneficial to send your employee a day early so she can familiarize herself with her surroundings before business actually begins.
Security risks depend on the level of the female traveler (is she a seasoned executive or an inexperienced, first time traveler?), the destination (is it high risk or low risk?) and the activities she will be performing (is she attending a closed-door, private conference, or is she in a high profile public space?).

Because of these multiple variables and scenarios, “it’s important to not generalize about women being high risk,” states Jo Carpenter, founder of Safer Business Travel for Women, a collaboration of leading female travel security and self-defense professionals, which provides guidance and inspiration to safety-conscious business travelers. Carpenter has also worked as travel analysis director with leading business risk consultancy Control Risks prior to being appointed director, global information center, with its Delhi-based joint venture Travel Security Services.

“Rather, it’s best to take the individual background of each woman going abroad and build the training around that,” Carpenter advises. In this way, the individual strengths, weaknesses and needs of the woman are also taken into account.

In addition, the value of having a culturally competent and seasoned female business traveler deliver the training cannot be underestimated. The trainer’s unique perspective as a woman, and her prior knowledge of the destination, especially when selecting a hotel, restaurant or other venue, can be of great benefit.

“A debrief by a female executive who has gone through the journey or visited the destination can be enormously helpful in a pre-departure training,” continues Carpenter. “Making the training interactive via role playing or other methods can also really help.”

Cross Cultural Competency 
Trainings should also include a cross cultural component; in today’s complex world, knowing local laws and religious and social norms is critical. In fact, the laws and culture of a destination, if not understood properly, can result in a security risk for a traveler.

The July 2013 sexual assault of a 24-year-old Norwegian woman in the United Arab Emirates is a case in point. When the victim reported the incident to police, she was convicted, sentenced and imprisoned on charges of having unlawful sex, making a false statement and illegal consumption of alcohol.

“What this shows us is that in many Middle Eastern countries, you should talk to a diplomatic representative first and foremost regarding a case of sexual assault, before you report the crime to the police,” explains Carpenter. This type of information is a valuable part of a pretrip training for women traveling to the region.
However, it’s also important to know that often, local citizens may treat foreign women differently than local women. In other words, knowing how women are perceived in other countries can impact your day to day decisions.
“Our manner of dress and appearance often needs to change out of respect for local customs,” WINiT’s Lee observes.  “While this is typically not a requirement of our male colleagues, in order for female executives to successfully navigate in the international arena, this is simply the reality.”

Lobna “Luby” Ismail, the founder and president of Connecting Cultures, LLC, agrees. She is a training specialist with more than 20 years of experience in the areas of cross-cultural communication, intercultural competence, Arab and American cultures, Islamic awareness, diversity and inclusion.

“Being interculturally smart is essential,” Ismail says. “Often, you may have to adapt your dress or behaviors to convey modesty based on the culture or community you are working with, meaning wearing skirts below the knees and higher necklines. A dangling earring can be perceived as less professional, eliciting unconscious biases. Direct eye contact or touch with a person of the opposite sex can be perceived as flirtatious,” she cautions.

“Women are more vulnerable in certain situations overseas,” Ismail continues. “One of the best ways to mitigate this risk is to seek out other women. When I travel alone, I connect with women employees at the airport, concierge and hotel. They are often eager to share their perspective on the destination and insider tips. Before traveling to a particular country, I will seek out a peer from that country in advance to learn more about the culture firsthand.”

Ismail has special expertise when it comes to Muslim countries, which she advises should not be treated as monolithic. There are over 50 Muslim majority countries in the world and each country has a different set of customs and norms.

“In some countries, women should carry a scarf to cover their head, as an extension of modesty and respect,” she explains. “That said, in the Arabian Gulf, they don’t expect you to ‘go native,’ but generally, a professional, more conservative way of dressing is appropriate. During meetings with Muslim men, wait until he extends his hand first to shake his hand. If he does not, a simple acknowledgement and placing your hand to your heart suffices. Not shaking or touching the hand of someone of the opposite gender is an expression of respect and modesty to you.”

Training Tactics 
Duty of care policy should allow for pretrip trainings to be tailored to the specific needs of women. “While women travel for the same reasons as their male counterparts, their health and safety needs and their social concerns differ from those of men,” says Eric Boger, director strategic decision support at Annapolis MD-based iJET International, a leading operational risk management company. “There are broad security, safety and health concerns, but there are also region-specific issues.”

Boger goes on to detail how security risks for women can vary in different parts of the world, with some posing serious consequences. “In any region, security concerns for women range from discrimination to verbal and physical harassment, which are distressing but pose no direct harm to physical safety. Women are also at risk for sexual violence and rape, crime, human trafficking, and kidnapping – even in some more developed countries. These risks are especially exacerbated at night and, to a certain extent, for lone female travelers who appear vulnerable and weak.”
However there are lower-level risks that nonetheless can pose a problem for the inexperienced female traveler.  “Some parts of the world offer limited access to women’s health facilities, medications and hygiene products; some countries lack these entirely. While likely not life threatening for a prepared traveler, the lack of access can make travel unpleasant and uncomfortable. Traveling while pregnant also warrants proper precautions in advance of travel,” he continues.

Cultural differences in the way women are treated can often be systemic and pervasive. “Different cultures perceive gender roles differently; in the Nordic countries – Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland – the gender gap is smaller than in the United States. In other regions, the gap between genders is larger and women do not hold many high-level positions. In some parts of the world women are marginalized, not educated, and treated as second-class citizens on the basis of their gender. Many of these cultures perceive female independence as unacceptable and even offensive. In extreme cases, women are forbidden to appear in public unless accompanied by a male relative.”

Empowering Female Travelers
While it’s smart to be well informed, a ‘one size fits all’ approach to femalesecurity often makes women travelers nervous, instead of inspiring confidence. When women are pre-armed with information specific to their needs, they feel more at ease and prepared to tackle any challenges that may arise along their trip. In creating a duty of care policy, an in-depth broad view that looks at providing total support of female travelers is vital.

Pre-trip trainings help the female traveler to get into the mindset that is needed to adapt to a different set of circumstances, feel more empowered through knowledge and preparation, relieve stress, and diminish negative emotions associated with business travel.

“It’s precisely this mindset, attitude or behavior which is the primary factor in determining whether someone may be targeted for a crime,” says Yelena Kashina, intelligence analyst, strategic decision support at iJET. “An easy target follows a predictable routine, is unaware of her surroundings, or is inattentive and distracted. Female travelers should maintain awareness as they move throughout a city. Women should arrive during daylight hours and have a plan for getting from the airport to the next destination,” she maintains. Many companies provide female-specific training programs in house, or contract out to groups such as iJET.

“The power of women in the global market is still vastly untapped,” says Connecting Culture’s Ismail. “Companies can leverage their female executives as they are powerful gateways to increased success for your business. While the business market worldwide may still be male dominated, this is changing every day. Today, being culturally aware is a trademark of a travel savvy female employee, as well as of a conscientious company that strives to take care of its employees and equip them to go global.”