I was reading an article recently about “benevolent sexism”. This argued that what had historically been seen in many cultures as chivalrous behavior, such as opening the door for a woman, was actually an insidious form of sexism because it was based on an underlying assumption that women needed support and couldn’t do things for themselves.
I could see the logic in the argument, but thinking through the consequences made me reflect on the challenges for global leadership – what morals, behaviors and norms should we as global leaders adhere to and display.
I was brought up to think opening a door for a woman indicated politeness. Today I tried, as an experiment in the UK, not holding the door open for a woman but simply walking through it myself. I received quite a hostile look in return. I felt impolite and she looked irritated.
As a global leader with individuals working for us from a range of cultures and orientations, how should we behave? I had dinner with a client last night who told me about a manager from one of their southern European operations who had moved to the US and was now being accused of sexual harassment for something that I am told would probably have been considered quite innocuous in his home country. This was a serious and expensive mistake.
If we fail to adapt to the local legislation of the country we are operating in at any time we leave ourselves open to legal action. If we fail to operate to the highest ethical standards anywhere we may be pilloried by the press in our home jurisdiction. Should we export what we believe to be “best practice” behaviors everywhere else in the world and expect others to adhere to them – isn’t that cultural imperialism? Or should we be flexible to local norms? But what about those practices that we personally feel are offensive or uncomfortable? If I’m working with a multicultural team, should I be flexible to all of their different individual norms and sensitivities? Where does that leave my moral core?
It’s a moral maze, and even with training, the issue is complex. What set of values and guidelines should I advise global leaders to follow even in something as apparently simple as whether to hold open the door for female colleagues around the world?
What are your views?