We send hundreds of students abroad each semester and many of these students find that living abroad helps them see the world through new eyes. One issue that students engage daily is the role of gender in a new cultural context. Both men and women may find that their identity, role and expected behavior in their host country are different from what it had been at home.
It is helpful to remember that understanding cultural differences relating to gender and learning how to interact in that context is a valuable part of the study abroad experience. We seek to assist you in working through these important issues as you prepare to go abroad. We encourage you to meet with Study Abroad Advisors to discuss expectations and concerns.
Gender Norms Abroad
We encourage all students to do research into social norms and cultural practices of the host country before leaving to study abroad. Our staff members are available to answer questions about the study abroad process and to help you to understand how gender issues may be experienced and understood differently abroad.
Here are a few questions you may want to explore to help you think about gender abroad:
- What is the attitude towards gender in my host country?
- What are the typical gender roles in my host country?
- What are the cultural expectations for men and women in my host country?
- What are the gender stereotypes of Americans in my host country?
- How do men treat women in my host country?
- What are the cultural norms regarding friendship and dating?
- How do my personal values compare with my host country’s attitudes about socially accepted gender roles?
When preparing to study abroad, it can be helpful to familiarize yourself with the host country’s cultural attitude toward gender, keeping in mind that the local norms there might be different from your personal values. Talking with other women who have studied abroad in that location is a great starting point for learning more about what to expect. Students may find that there are significant differences in the norms for dress, behavior, and relationships.
It is important to remember that your words and actions may be perceived in a different manner than you intended them due to cultural differences. When you are unsure about how to behave in a certain circumstance, you are encouraged to take cues from local women. This cultural understanding is particularly important in terms of male-female relationships. In many cultures, a friendly smile and eye contact that would be appropriate in the United States, may unintentionally draw unwanted attention from men in your host country.
Because of the considerations of navigating different gender roles while studying abroad, it is vital to prioritize your own safety at all times. While harassment may be more difficult to verify abroad because of differing cultural norms, cultural sensitivity does not mean that you need to submit to behaviors that make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
Common-sense safety precautions such as traveling in pairs or groups, dressing in a culturally appropriate manner, and educating yourself about sexual harassment are integral to maintaining your sense of safety. Be sure to familiarize yourself with emergency procedures, and take your gut feelings seriously. Here are some additional recommendations:
- Prioritize your personal safety over cultural sensitivity.
- Pay attention to dressing in a culturally appropriate way.
- At night, travel in groups and never walk home alone.
- Locate the nearest United States embassies and consulates.
- Take a self-defense class before going abroad.
- Use caution when choosing to drink alcohol, and avoid all illicit drugs.
- Learn basic phrases in the local language.
- Talk with local women about how to deflect unwanted attention.
UW University Health Services
State Department Travel Tips for Women