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.
State Department Travel Tips for Women
We ask students to share their experiences on how various parts of their identity impacted them while they were abroad in their program evaluations. Below are tips and advice given by Badgers about their individual experiences and thoughts. These do not represent all experiences in a location. Our staff is happy to talk with you about any questions you may have.
Tips from your fellow Badgers on identifying as a woman traveling in…
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“Being a woman in Senegal can be a bit challenging at times, especially for a particularly non-religious, liberal, independent woman. Hold your ground, defend your positions. It is important to have an open mind and try to understand other perspectives, but Senegalese people love to debate things so do not be intimidated to speak your mind.” – Senegal participant
“South Africa, for all its beauty and diversity, is still particularly violent against women. I had to be more vigilante than my male peers in being aware of my surroundings and traveling in groups. You may be confident in your ability to defend yourself, but it is not worth putting yourself in harm’s way when you could simply take a few extra precautions to ensure your security.” – South Africa participant
“It was very common for us women to be approached by men hitting on us, asking us if we have boyfriends, or even if they could take pictures of/with us. There really was not much we could do about this besides attempting to dress as modest and low-key as possible. Listen to the program leaders when they tell you what type of clothing is or is not appropriate.” – Tanzania participant
“Cultural norms involving women are very different. There were times when the female students on the program would experience sexism in both the classroom and the village. It was important for us to keep this in perspective and realize cultural differences that were the root of these problems. Be empathetic to those who have a cultural background that gives them misconceptions about varying identities. However, don’t give them excuses. If something bothers you, speak up.” – Tanzania participant
“People definitely looked at me different being an unusually tall, blonde, white woman. It was obvious that I had a lot of vulnerabilities in a culture where I stuck out so much visually. Just be aware of your surroundings and don’t let small comments from people get to you.” – Uganda participant
“Being a white female made a huge difference on my experience just in the way I was treated. I would be stared at, people would take pictures or videos of me, they would talk about me assuming I didn’t understand. Old men were pretty creepy towards me, and boys my age would corner me and ask for my contact information. Other than that, the things that actually define me as a human being did not impact my experience abroad.” – China participant
“I identify as a female, and this was more important and more evident abroad. In the US, I honestly never had reason to think about my gender identity too much. But in India, almost everyone questioned my gender almost as soon as they met me (I have very short hair and generally dress in non-revealing clothes). I had to first become assured in my gender and then decide how I wanted to react to the inquisitions of others. Being female also brought along other dangers and unwanted attention. Because of this I didn’t wear shorts (locals didn’t either), I traveled with other people, and we were sure to be home by dark. Know what you are and are not comfortable with and be able to voice yourself when your comfort lines are being crossed. Lots of people will want to take pictures with you or touch your skin, and you have to learn what and how much you’re comfortable with and to draw the line.” – India participant
“Being a woman in India is a challenge. You will learn about things that make you uncomfortable and challenge your thoughts on what it means to be a woman in your own and Indian society. Sometimes you will also be harassed slightly and stared at. But staring in India is normal.” – India participant
“While it was clear my sexuality was something I could not be open about most of the time, being a woman meant that I was specifically targeted almost daily. It is definitely an added burden to the experience, and other women and female-bodied people should go in knowing this. It helped for me to not take it personally and ignore the harassment most of the time. Towards the end of my time abroad, I had embraced the overt staring culture, and it did not bother me when people stared at me – as I was staring back. While I found it wise to not flaunt my personal identity, there were opportunities to discuss gender, sexuality, and marriage. In these conversations, the people around me surprised me more than once with nuance and perspectives that helped me understand myself and the culture. I would encourage you to talk to people with an open heart and ears.” – India participant
“As a female racial minority, I experienced many micro-aggressions and negative stereotypes from Japanese people. Japan, like any country, has social issues that it struggles with. Ways in which foreigners, minority groups, women, and many others are treated is very troubling, but please try to look at the whole picture and realize that this is something many Japanese and resident non-Japanese are working together to change. You have just as much right to exist and live in Japan as anyone else.” – Japan participant
“As a women and foreigner I had to be cautious of my surroundings and I had to think about how being a women and how my skin color would impact my travel experience in the countries I visited. I never felt unsafe when traveling, but that is because I did my research about how to dress, common gestures and actions, and transportation so as not to disrespect the people of the country I was visiting and to know the safest way to get around.” – Thailand participant
“In a country that was predominately male driven, I definitely saw a lot of cultural differences that created barriers for me as a woman. There were many ways that men treated me as a foreign woman differently, especially if they didn’t know that I spoke their language and could understand what they were saying. I would say that if anyone or any situation is making you uncomfortable, you leave. If you need to buy a different train ticket, different hotel, cab, etc., your safety and comfort is worth more than trying to fit into the cultural norms as a self-identifying woman.” – Italy participant
“People are interested in Americans, and especially in Florence, Italian men would oftentimes catcall foreign women such as ourselves. I learned to deal with it, but it was definitely annoying at times and I could see how it could really disturb some girls studying abroad. Keep your head up, eyes straight, and get where you need to go. You do not need to engage with the people staring you down and making sexual comments to you.”– Italy participant
“I think as a female, when traveling you have to be extremely alert, more than a male. Certain cultures act differently toward women which can be startling and hard to get used to but in the end is part of being in a foreign culture. Always be aware of your surroundings, even when you feel comfortable, and tune in with how people act around you.” – Ireland participant
“The only frustration that I had being abroad, which I deal with here too, is that catcalling was very common. I couldn’t go on a run without hearing it about 8-10 times, which was unsettling. Try to be in a group as much as possible, especially at night.” – Argentina participant
“Being a woman was something I thought a lot about while abroad, because in Latin America there is a different flair of patriarchy. I didn’t feel as valued as I do in the States and would oftentimes feel put down when comments or stares were sent my way. But out of the negativity came a lot of thought related to being comfortable with my individuality, even if people aren’t going to respect it. Stay strong and don’t let the men get you down!” – Chile participant
“As a woman, I had to be more careful about where I was, what I was wearing, who I was with, and how late I was staying out. Although these things aren’t new, I do feel like it was even more important just because it was visibly obvious that I was a foreigner.” – Costa Rica participant
“As a woman, I experienced a lot of catcalling in town. As we were told this would happen, I did not feel uncomfortable with it, but it did happen every time we went into town. Just be aware that catcalling happens but don’t let it make you afraid to go into town as usually the men don’t mean for it to be taken negatively. Travel in groups of at least two, but preferably more to be safe. Try to learn Spanish words for “attractive” so you know what they are saying. By knowing what they were saying, I found the attention humorous but my friends who did not understand felt more uncomfortable.” – Panama participant
“Being a more androgynous-looking woman, I did find that life on the streets was a lot easier for me. I rarely (if at all) got catcalled or yelled at just because I’m very tall and do not fall within the traditional Peruvian standards of beauty. That being said, in my household I did have a fair amount of problems with my host mother and my gender expression. I’m fairly confident with my identity and I don’t usually let little things bother me like my host mom making uncomfortable comments towards me. But for someone who is not as confident with their identity, I would recommend living with exchange students instead of a host family. Also keep in mind that we attend a very forward-thinking university here in Madison where homophobia and discrimination are not tolerated. The PUCP is a catholic university. Homophobia and discrimination are very prevalent on that campus.” – Peru participant