Business Travel Safety for WomenMarch 1, 2015

March 1, 2015

Business Travel Safety for Women

IFMM-2015-0304MarApr-Column-Risk_Management Kashina,Yelena-iJet-110x140Yelena Kashina is passionate about exploring the world and different cultures. Yelena joined iJET in 2011 as an Intelligence Analyst after conducting research on humanitarian and security issues for global NGOs such as the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) and at the U.S. Department of State’s Mission to the United Nations. She earned a graduate degree from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in 2010, and Bachelor’s degrees in German and Psychology in 2007 from the University of Rhode Island. Proficient in six languages, Yelena has studied and traveled extensively in Eastern and Western Europe. In her spare time, she is a portrait artist and mentors students and young professionals in international relations.

Today, many professionals have come to understand the rewarding benefits of business travel and now more than ever, women are traveling the globe in pursuit of professional growth.

Few activities build an individual’s reputation, create career opportunities, offer connections to new contacts and help build professional relationships in the same way as meeting potential clients and business partners face-to-face where they operate. In addition to this, business travel also offers the opportunity to expand personal horizons, fuel professional passion and inspire creativity.

However, it also can be dangerous.

Female travelers now make up nearly 50 percent of all business travelers but face a higher risk than their male counterparts of becoming targets of crimes such as sexual harassment or assault. And in some locations, women may not receive sufficient attention from police or health care professionals — to some extent because they are female.

Regardless, with the proper precautions and necessary information, women can minimize the majority of these risks.


Crime data indicate that criminals perceive single women as easier targets than men, putting female business travelers at higher risk of being victims of opportunistic crime. Foreigners traveling in less wealthy parts of the world may already attract unwanted attention, but women displaying accessories that criminals can easily resell — expensive clothes, watches, jewelry, even a purse or shoes — are particularly attractive targets. Furthermore, the conception of “expensive” varies by location: What is not considered expensive in a home country may be perceived differently abroad.

It’s easy to minimize the threat: Keep a low profile and travel light without readily visible signs of affluence. This won’t eliminate the threat entirely, but thieves may pay less attention.

Sexual Harassment

Female travelers often report that sexual harassment — an umbrella phrase meant to encompass anything from irritating catcalls to unwanted advances, touching or even assault — is their primary concern. There are two vectors to the threat: uncomfortable and awkward social and professional situations; and threats to security and personal safety.

Social behavior towards professional women varies wildly depending on the location. Studies indicate that in some formal business settings, high-ranking businesswomen still routinely deal with open sexual discrimination or sexual harassment. These locations are often difficult for foreign women to adjust to and may require managerial interference. At the lesser end of the spectrum are countries where discussions about marital status, age and children are considered common business office conversation. Legally, women are not obliged to reveal such details, but understanding the culture regarding these conversations can help to ease the tension. Additionally, understanding the cultural context (office chit-chat vs. sexual interest) of such questions can help avoid difficult or compromising situations.

Social behavior towards professional women varies wildly depending on the location.

Extending beyond the cultural interaction is the very real threat of sexual assault or other dangers to personal security. Blanket statements fail to capture the variance in threat from place to place, as each country, and often each city or neighborhood, is different. The best standard advice is that all female travelers should be educated on the threat of sexual assault in their upcoming destination, be aware of location-appropriate security precautions and be prepared to respond if necessary.

Health Concerns

Standards of medical services vary drastically across the world, and some countries or regions may not meet the health needs of some women. As with all business travelers, women need to ensure that they are up to date on routine medical and dental checkups and that they have travel health insurance and the appropriate medications. Beyond this, women travelers should understand the female-specific concerns that could affect them in any location. Knowing is the first step to protecting yourself.

Country Examples

Each of the three major business traveler destinations addressed below is an annual destination for thousands of female travelers. Together, they illustrate the wide range of potential situations women may experience when traveling for business:

Bahrain: Bahrain is a conservative and religious Muslim country. It also is one of the most female-friendly business traveler locations in the region, or even internationally. Bahraini businessmen generally treat foreign women with courtesy and respect and, at least in business contexts, as equals. However, revealing clothing is highly inappropriate and is strongly frowned upon.

In addition, Thursdays and Fridays are high-incident times for verbal sexual harassment. Women usually can stop the harassment by ignoring it, but police officers also can intervene if the situation is brought to their attention.

China: The vast majority of women who visit China report no trouble on their trips, and traveling alone is considered safe. Chinese women today share relative equality with their male counterparts, and this translates to most female foreign business traveler interactions.

However, the accepted behavior of prolonged staring by locals in rural China has made some women uncomfortable and confused. Many female travelers fail to realize that the staring is likely due to their general non-Chinese appearance rather than gender. Staring is not considered a rude gesture and carries no connotation of harassment. While uncomfortable by Western standards, the staring is not indicative of an increased threat.

Colombia: Verbal sexual harassment in Colombia is widely accepted. Generally, the catcalls and rude comments of a sexual nature do not escalate to threats to personal security; women are expected to ignore the comments. However, the situation is confusing because such actions can indicate increased threat, particularly for women walking alone. Sexual assaults do occur, but are much less likely than petty crime, which should be the primary concern to all travelers, male and female. Petty thieves, including pickpockets and purse-snatchers, are active day and night, searching for easy or vulnerable targets. Armed assailants make venturing out after dark on foot or by car hazardous in many locations, and these criminals do not hesitate to use violence, especially if resisted.

Advance Planning

Security issues affecting businesswomen are not going away anytime soon, but by planning ahead and being resourceful, women can overcome them. Learning about local customs and business protocols in the destination is a great start in developing a greater awareness of potential risks to safety and personal security. This can help women feel and be safe in the countries profiled above, or anywhere in the world.  I&FMM


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