Gender Identity and Global Assignments: Lessons From My Time in Korea

By Gbemi Disu

November 13, 2017

Share this

By Gbemi Disu

In project management, the term “triple constraints” refers to the three most common restrictions that a project encounters: cost, scope, and schedule. In a previous life as a member of the Six Sigma Black belt team for a global bank, this information was often top of my mind and helped to drive my business decisions. Turns out, it is also relevant in helping institutions execute a comprehensive internationalization strategy.

With over 36,000 students representing over 120 countries, George Mason University (GMU) is the largest public research institution in Virginia. Its brand reputation has rapidly become synonymous with innovation, diversity, and a commitment to access. Given Mason’s strong ties to Asia, several years ago the university accepted an invitation from the Korean government to be a part of the Incheon Global Campus in South Korea.

This branch campus provides Mason the chance to explore new opportunities and deepen relationships in one of the most economically significant regions of the world. GMU Korea officially opened in Incheon in March 2014 with a cohort of 30 students and two degree programs, with the goal of enrolling 2,000 students and launching more degree programs over the next decade. The campus serves as a hub for faculty research as well as a study abroad location for students from the Fairfax campus. It is in essence a regional hub and an important part of GMU’s global strategy.

Gbemi Disu with GMU Korea students.

Starting an overseas branch campus isn’t easy, and there isn’t one model for success, as most of us in this space are aware. Depending on the culture of the institution, there is always the complexity of staying true to the main campus brand and culture while adapting to the realities of the local culture. Navigating this labyrinth requires global leaders who possess a global mindset.

In their book Being Global: How to Think, Act, and Lead in a Transformed World, GMU President Ángel Cabrera and Gregory Unruh state that, “The global mindset allows leaders to connect with individuals and organizations across boundaries. Their entrepreneurial spirit equips them to create value through those connections. And their citizenship drives them to make a positive contribution to the communities they engage with.” Understanding and implementing these three core tasks explains global success for many leaders.

Even with the general understanding of what makes for effective leadership on an international level, for women, there is the additional context of how being a woman shapes your experience as a global leader. I will use my experiences in South Korea to illustrate what I mean and share some lessons I have learned along the way.

Lesson 1: Embrace your masculinity and femininity

Prior to starting my assignment as chief operating officer (COO) of GMU Korea, I learned that only about 10 per cent of all managerial positions in the country are held by women, and the gender pay gap is 39 percent, the highest in the countries studied by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The OECD report implies that the marginalization of women is a key weakness in the Korean economy, a Financial Times article states that Korean women face the greatest pressure in Asia to leave their jobs and take care of their children once they have a family.

All of this prepared me to have realistic expectations of the challenges I might encounter as a woman in my role as COO. They weren’t wrong. Over the course of my time in South Korea, I frequently encountered situations where my gender was a barrier because as a woman, I shouldn’t be doing X (insert a myriad of possibilities).

I recall one day, one of my Korean colleagues remarked that “you work like a male Korean Samsung employee.” I wasn’t sure if this was a compliment or I was being chastised, but it didn’t matter because I was focused on results and leveraged whichever aspect of my nature was required to succeed. I wasn’t afraid to be perceived as too masculine when I was authoritative or too feminine when I was compassionate. At some point, I was going to be accused of one or the other, and I decided to embrace both aspects unapologetically.

Gbemi Disu and GMU President Ángel Cabrera.

Lesson 2: Know the danger of a single story

In a Ted Talk several years ago, Chimamanda Adichie warns about the risks of misunderstanding people and cultures when you base your evaluation on one voice or a specific experience. I apply her concept to the notion of personal identity. Everyone has aspects of their identity they feel are most salient; however, these may not be consistent with how others view you.

In my case, I focused on the fact that I was a woman heading into a patriarchal business environment and spoke extensively with other women to get insights and guidance into how they navigated the challenges. What I initially failed to understand was the overly simplistic nature of my approach, which focused solely on my gender identity. In South Korea, the fact that I was a woman was compounded by the fact that I was a woman of African heritage and was perceived as young for my role.

South Korea has experienced a rise in undocumented migrants of African heritage, and for a country that has long been homogeneous, this has created some backlash and discomfort. Had I been an older, white American woman, I might have been afforded more respect than a younger professional of African descent. Women need to have a broader perspective on the different aspects of their identity in the context of the specific environment they are in to address the challenges or leverage the opportunities that may arise.

Lesson 3: Network, network, network

I can’t underscore enough the importance of networking. I very quickly met other global or globally minded professionals in South Korea. The opportunity to have a safe space to discuss challenges and learn from their vast experiences cannot be overemphasized.

Lesson 4: Be kind to yourself

The quote from Seneca, “It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult” comes to mind here. Taking an assignment overseas is taxing, and depending on what support system you have, there will be moments where it feels impossible. You can’t get something done on time or you make a cultural faux pas and lose a deal or you can’t get the main campus to be on the same page regarding a critical issue. No matter what it is, you should be kind to yourself and find time to rejuvenate by doing things that make you happy. Focusing on your well-being only makes you a more productive leader in the long run.

Lesson 5: Have fun!

We all teach our students to manage culture shock but tend to forget that even as seasoned global professionals, we will still experience this ourselves to a degree. Enjoying the moment, embracing the culture, learning from your local colleagues as well as teaching them aspects of your culture is all part of the journey.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog post, please contact us.

About the Author

Gbemi Disu

Keep Reading

Going Global

Prospects for alternative measures of institutional achievement have been welcomed by many for their potential to focus on institutional progress through the lens of student learning outcomes assessment. Several international organizations have taken an especially strong interest in this aspect of accountability, particularly the OECD, write Brad Farnsworth and Patti McGill Peterson.

February 10, 2014

Bringing Global Learning to West Virginia

Glenville State College in West Virginia is bringing global learning to its rural Appalachian campus—where 85 percent of students come from the surrounding counties—by connecting faculty and students online to teach and learn with their peers in Spain and Mexico. Megan Gibbons and Heather Ward look at how making international connections through online learning is transforming the college.

May 16, 2016

Postcard From the AAC&U Annual Meeting: Global Learning at Emerson College

Central to Emerson’s internationalization plan is a set of global learning outcomes, which have been integrated into a broader set of learning outcomes that address Emerson’s core educational mission. All students benefit from global learning opportunities, and student learning remains at the heart of the institution’s internationalization efforts.

February 6, 2017