Editor’s note: “International Business Corner” is a weekly column written by Joan Keston that provides information for people involved in or considering international operations. Keston is an international business consultant. Over the next several months she will be writing about important issues that international businesses face as they compete in the 21st century global business environment.

This article is part of a series that discusses women working in international business.

RALEIGH, N.C. – I moved to Paris in the mid-80s and worked throughout Europe. The Berlin Wall had not fallen yet, so when Americans said Europe they only thought of Western Europe. The biggest compliment I received in Europe whenever I traveled there since my teenage years was never to be thought as an American. My eastern European heritage and ancestry served me well in adapting and working in Europe.

The character of each country in Europe is so diverse that it is difficult to consider Europe as one entity. The topic of women in Europe could fill volumes. Here are just a few personal observations and impressions.

Post World War II

I don’t think you can fully discuss the feminist movement or the role of women in business in Europe without mentioning the effects of the two World Wars that were fought on European soil with devastating results, the rebuilding of Europe after those wars and the Cold War. Although most women were forced to enter the work force during WWII in Europe and the US because the men were off fighting, the US women returned home when the men did, the European women did not.

Being Female

The first difference I felt working in Europe as compared to the US was the absence of denial of femaleness. The clothing professional women wore was much more attractive and feminine than what was being worn in the US. European style of dress in general makes a different statement, but here I am only comparing it to the phenomenon of the US professional women’s attempt to look masculine. Of course there were plenty of women who looked doughty and not stylish, but the image for those interested in style in the big cities was clearly not a denial of femaleness.

I also found older successful professional women in the office which I had not seen in the US. (I don’t know if there is a statistical study about this. Remember, I’m just discussing my experience.) My French colleague would often talk to the other woman on her team for advice. Up to that time in my working life, I had not found an older professional woman considered to be at the same level of the men, nor one equally respected as the men.

Women had much more support to balance their careers and family issues. Of course there are many reasons for this added support. I would venture to say that the feminist movement was not as novel a concept in Europe because women had already been in the work force in much greater numbers. In addition the cultural characteristics of the family unit or extended family, and the usually close proximity of the extended family were much different from the situation in the US.

Being American

The more difficult issues I had in business in Europe centered around being a young American trying to do business without the necessary appearances and support from my US company. We in the US are part of the new world and in business we are contract-based, not relationship-based. Europe is part of the old world with all the trappings and restrictions incorporated in an established class structure. It is also more relationship-based in its business dealings.

I neither felt nor experienced negativity in regards to feminist issues, nor negativity to me personally. Most of the frustration I felt was because I was working without a formalized business or physical structure in an environment where that was essential for credibility and respect. That fact plus my youth did not translate into the business culture with the same kind of authority and importance that I had had in the US business culture.

Next Stop – BRAZIL!

About the author: Joan Keston is the Managing Principal of Keston & Associates, Ltd., an international business consulting firm located in Raleigh, NC, and a Partner at Paladin and Associates, Inc. She has 25 twenty-five years of experience with mature as well as entrepreneurial companies, domestically and internationally, coupled with an executive managerial and legal background. Her firm facilitates international business transactions, and assists companies establish, grow and integrate their international operations. She can be reached at (919) 881-7764 and jkeston@kestonassociates.com.