Whether you’ve traveled before or this is your first time abroad, it’s important to consider your host country’s cultural attitude towards gender identity. Gender roles abroad may differ from those in the U.S. You may choose not to behave in exactly the same ways as local men and women do; however, it is important that you educate yourself about cultural gender roles within your host community in order to make sensitive choices about how you will behave while abroad and to understand how your personal views and opinions may be interpreted by your host culture.
Learn about Your Country
Societal expectations based on gender can differ between countries and can influence interaction. Take the time and initiative to learn as much as possible about your host country’s language, religion, customs, and appropriate dress. Such knowledge will increase your confidence and independence, which are important to your personal safety.
Questions to ask:
- What is the attitude towards gender in my host country?
- What are considered typical gender roles in my host society?
- What are the society’s perceptions and expectations for men, women and transgender individuals in my host country?
- What are the gender stereotypes of Americans in my host country?
- How do men treat women in my host country?
- Are there differences in political and social power based on gender?
- How do my personal values compare with my host country’s attitudes about socially accepted gender roles?
Behavior & Relationships Abroad
Your behavior in some situations may be viewed differently abroad than in the U.S. Consider your actions and inform yourself as best as possible about behavioral expectations, dating, and relationships in your host culture. Talk with peers who have studied in your host country before and locals your own age to gauge what’s typical. You may find that what is viewed as acceptable behavior in your host country is offensive to you or makes you uncomfortable. It’s important to check societal expectations with your own personal values.
The “rules” of dating vary from culture to culture. For example, cultural differences can make male-female friendships more challenging. Consider the implicit messages that you are communicating, messages that you may not intend to send in your own cultural context. Evaluating societal differences when it comes to these relationships and modifying your behavior accordingly is part of learning and relating to another culture.
Women may experience particular difficulties while abroad, which can be compounded by language and cultural differences as well as risk factors related to health and safety. Do not put yourself at greater risk for harassment by becoming intoxicated, accepting drinks from strangers, or being alone.
Additionally, it’s important to educate yourself on the social norms and local laws regarding same-sex relationships. Read more on our LGBTQ page.
Safety Tips & Traveling Alone
Though the thrill of traveling and excitement of a new culture may tempt you to let your guard down, your personal safety is as important while studying abroad as it is at home. You are your own best resource. Keep this in mind when preparing to face a range of possible situations, from sexual comments or harassment, to the rare event of a physically threatening situation. Depending on the situation, remove yourself as quickly as possible; confront the person; or ask for support from your Program Director, other program staff, or GLO. The best advice: trust your intuition, make good choices, and support your program mates. If your instincts send you warning signals, heed them!
While some of these suggestions may seem to communicate sexist undertones, they are based on the safety concerns and recommendations of returnees.
- Prioritize your personal safety over cultural sensitivity.
- Consider dressing in a manner similar to the cultural norm abroad.
- Research the security situation and talk to other students who have traveled to the countries you plan to visit.
- At night, travel in groups and never walk home alone.
- Make sure you know the local emergency phone number.
- Locate the nearest U.S. embassies and consulates.
- Take a self-defense class before going abroad.
- Stay in hostels with a clientele of travelers like you.
- Try pairing up with another solo traveler.
- Make sure someone knows where you are traveling and when you plan to return.
- Learn basic phrases in the local language.
- If you are being catcalled, avoid eye contact and don't engage.
- Try to arrive at your destination during daylight hours.
- Engage in conversation with locals about gender roles, expectations, and social settings.
Sexual Harassment and Assault
Harassment may be particularly difficult to identify abroad, where cultural norms are often different than those in the U.S. However, cultural sensitivity does not mean that you need to submit to behaviors that invade your personal boundaries or make you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Educating yourself about sexual harassment, violence and gender dynamics abroad can empower you and your peers. Review Information and Options for Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Abroad on the Office of Global Safety and Security's website.
- Your Global Learning Office adviser can help you find more information about the country you plan to go to and connect you with NU peers who have studied in that country before. Additionally, program evaluations available in the office are a good way to learn what former students have to say about your host country and what you may encounter abroad.
- The Northwestern University Women's Center is dedicated to fostering a campus climate that promotes equity and enriches the personal, professional and academic lives of all members of the University community, particularly women students, staff and faculty.
- The Northwestern Center for Awareness, Response, and Education (CARE) provides information, advice, crisis counseling, support, advocacy, referrals and education about sexual violence (including sexual assault, rape, intimate partner violence and stalking) as well as consent, healthy relationships and healthy sexuality to the Northwestern University community.
- The Gender and Sexuality Resource Center works to increase visibility and awareness of issues surrounding gender and sexuality by uniting existing community entities and developing their own educational and outreach-oriented programming.