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Business Culture: Women in Business

Despite having a traditional hierarchical society in which one's social status is often determined by family connections, Spain is egalitarian enough that even the poorest peasant can rise to society’s upper echelons if he or she takes full advantage of the educational system and has enough business acumen and luck to succeed. Women also enjoy virtually equal status with men in Spain, although traditional viewpoints of gender roles and patriarchal attitudes pose a stumbling block to women’s full participation in the labor force. Region plays a role in gender issues, as well. The northern part of the country and the larger cities tend to be more liberal, while the southern part of Spain and its rural areas are strongholds for many who believe in traditional gender roles. As a visiting businesswoman, you will likely be operating in circles which promote gender parity, and should be free to exercise your role.

Public Presence

Women in Spain enjoy freedom of movement in almost every setting. Whether you find yourself in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, or even out in the countryside, you will see Spanish men and women interacting freely with each other. All public transportation is shared with no special seating arrangements assigned to a certain gender. Grocery stores, beaches, parks, markets, businesses, museums, theaters, restaurants, and almost anywhere else you can think of is open to both sexes. The only exceptions are Muslim mosques and Jewish Orthodox synagogues, which have separate sections for men and women to pray, and professional sports teams, which are typically composed of only one gender. While in the country, you will have the freedom to explore any setting that is open to the general public.

There are no legal restrictions on a woman’s attire, although certain locations have traditional standards of dress. When visiting churches and cathedrals, for example, you'll need to wear pants or a skirt and have your shoulders covered to be admitted inside to view their ornate interiors. Spanish women rarely wear shorts unless engaged in an athletic activity that specifically requires them, so pack pants, capris, skirts, and dresses instead, especially in dark colors. Black is a favorite color, though shades of brown are also common in Andalucía. Most dresses are of the sleeved variety and of no standard length. Business dress is stylish and sharp; wear tailored suits or dresses that cover the upper legs and shoulders, in dark shades. Avoid low-cut blouses or revealing styles, as these are thought to be unprofessional.

Women in Spain have the freedom to move about with companions of either gender, as they choose. You will probably notice, though, that many Spaniards enjoy spending time with groups of their own gender. This is due to cultural preference rather than social restrictions, as you will see plenty of mingling of the sexes, especially among the younger set. Of course, you may decide to spend time alone or with companions of both genders, and this is perfectly acceptable as well.

Personal Interaction

Spaniards tend to stand fairly close to each other when conversing, and even closer when the two speakers are good friends or members of the same family. Less than an arm’s length apart is common. Frequent touching is a part of many discussions, although much less prevalent in business settings. You'll find that men usually wait for you to extend your hand first. Once a closer relationship has been established, men and women touch cheeks and kiss the air. Make direct eye contact during introductions, greetings, and conversation, as doing so is an indication of honesty and trustworthiness. When conversing with Spanish businessmen, speak to them as equals and use the same tone that you would use with colleagues back at home.

In Spain, women are considered to be people with their own ideas, opinions, and emotions. Your thoughts will generally be respected, and you are free to express yourself and persuade others. However, the value placed on women's opinions is usually higher among younger urbanites than among older rural residents.

Autonomy and Leadership

There are no restrictions on women's movement in Spain, and they are free to travel both domestically and internationally. Women can own their own businesses as well as their own property. However, women must still battle discrimination, despite laws against it. For example, married women have less chance of being hired, since employers do not want to someday pay maternity leave. Women are also underrepresented in politics. In general, though, you should have no trouble operating in business situations.