Letting clients discriminate

Back in the late 90s early 2000s, I did a lot of consulting work for Asian clients. Mostly from Australia, but occasionally I would fly up for a week or so to do a job. I gradually learned just how culturally different all the Asian countries are from each other. In many, many ways, but this post is about just one: sexism.

It’s a toss up, but I’d say the easiest country in East Asia to be a woman in business is Singapore. Hong Kong is pretty good, too. There are many successful women in both countries – in many cases coming out of the family businesses that are very prevalent there, but a highly educated female population has made its presence felt. I haven’t been to either place for long enough to really tell, but it certainly felt comparable to Australia.

At the other end, I expected Japan to be the worst place. Japanese women in business are called “Office Ladies” and have to be exceptional to rise above mundane clerical work. But being a foreign woman there wasn’t as difficult as I expected. Foreigners were so far outside the cultural expectation that foreign women were treated fairly similarly to foreign men, at least during office hours (the after hours drinking which you needed to do to win more sales was another story).

But Korea… now that was difficult. I’ve heard quite a few stories about female foreigners being treated atrociously in business. One who was attempting to provide a training course (to the Korean part of her company), and had her trainees refuse to listen to her. Another whose company was asked by its client to pull her off the project because they didn’t work with women. I did spend some time up there, but I was an actuary working with other actuaries, and (amazingly) the professional solidarity trumped the gender discrimination.

But we did have a huge argument within our company about what to do about it. The “do the right thing” group (including me) argued that we should put the right consultant on the job, based on their professional abilities, regardless of what the client thought about it. I argued that we would never let our clients force us to discriminate based on race; gender should be the same.

But a strong faction viewed the commercial imperative as more important; by imposing our own ethical views on our clients, we were being culturally insensitive and losing important revenue.

Korea wasn’t necessarily a place our women were clamouring to work; the sexist environment made it pretty unpleasant, sometimes. On the other hand, though, there were exciting things happening in our field there, and the experience of our projects was a great addition to anyone’s CV.

It is a slippery slope. It is sensible consulting practice to match consultant to client based on personal chemistry. If you put a team together that is likely to bond with the client team, you’ll get a better professional outcome, and you’re more likely to get continuing work. But where do you draw the line from putting a consultant on a project because her passion for Opera is matched by the lead client (and she’s one of the three or four best people for the project) and taking professional opportunities away from a consultant because the client is clearly being discriminatory in taking offense at that person.

I was glad to be part of an organisation that respected its people enough to fiercely debate the topic. Even though one of our explicit values as a company was “client comes first”, we didn’t let the client dictate entirely. We ended up compromising to some extent; our women rarely led the marketing charge in Korea, but were often valuable support on specific jobs. Korea wasn’t a major part of our revenue base, so this wasn’t a make or break decision for us. 

But what would you do if it was a make or break decision? How far do you let clients dictate how you manage your business and treat your people?

  3 comments for “Letting clients discriminate

  1. July 20, 2007 at 6:28 am

    Very interesting post. I couldn’t help thinking while reading if the cultural bias had been against a black person leading the consulting team how the company might have reacted – probably “We’re putting this consultant on the job whether you like it or not”. I think racism is universally regarded as bad, but it’s still going to take a long while for people the world over to recognise sexism as equally bad.

    Glad to hear that your company was behind its consultants though.

  2. July 21, 2007 at 12:10 am

    There was an enticing image of the commercial environment as a set of trading houses with glass shelves at various heights. I am not sure of the correct terminology for the next bit. A decade or two ago there was a feminist radio program in this city. I well remember the look of shock I got when I offered to write up, and present, a segment for them. The offer was not taken up.
    I applaud anyone who leans patiently against the various forms of prejudice they encounter abroad. The article stirred me to imagine the view that opens for anyone coming here. Some of the “-ism”s are a little unfashionable but it is hard to describe any as locally extinct.
    In the search for long term improvements at home and abroad the patient relativist looks like a better bet than the impatient purist. Inevitably the campaigns have aspects of guerilla warfare. How frequently should one show a glimpse of impatience? And … I am not sure I can answer the purist who says that a little tolerance is indistinguishable from accepting a small bribe.

  3. July 23, 2007 at 8:00 am

    Tricky! It immediately made me think of an occasion quite a few years a go where I put myself at one step removed from a relatively young female client by positioning another, younger female account exec as the “better match” – pandering automatically to something we’d all (including the exec mapped onto her) identified as this woman’s dislike of older males who weren’t “funky” enough. But what did that say about my underlying attitude towards the person I’d assigned that particular role to?

    Thing is, though, consultancy is a black art in any circumstances – in many ways, the question is one of degree and negotiation with boundaries only really become distinct as you refuse to cross them. Charlotte’s point about race is an interesting one in that it’s become the default “no-go” area in a way that sexism still doesn’t seem to be. Or religion.

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