Women Off-Campus

In this section, we refer primarily, but not exclusively, to cisgender-identified women and men, as transgender-identified individuals or gender-queer individuals may have additional considerations—see the LGBTQ+ Off-Campus section for additional resources.

Gender roles vary from culture to culture. Women are treated differently and have different day-to-day lives in different cultures. Some cultures rely on gender as a primary way to define identity, while many cultures see gender as one of many factors that might define identity.  Your host culture’s attitudes towards gender may not always align with your own values or experience. In certain locations, women in particular may feel significantly different about what their gender identity means abroad than at home, and this may affect decisions about behavior, relationships, dress, safety, travel plans, and everyday routines.

There is no “right or wrong” way to behave as a woman abroad; all choices about personal expression are valid. At the same time, it is important to recognize that in some locations and cultures, women’s actions and personal expression can send different cultural signals that may not be understood in the same way as they are in the U.S., and they may have unintended consequences. These consequences can range from feeling uncomfortable or awkward in an unfamiliar situation to, in the worst (and rarest) cases, being put in danger of physical or emotional harm. When making decisions about behavior, actions, and relationships abroad, all students are urged to put their safety first. You are also encouraged to inform yourself, before departure and during your program, of local cultural cues and gender roles in order to help make the best decisions for you. You should be aware that, in many countries, the attitudes regarding sexual behavior and sexual consent differ significantly from those in the United States. The perceived seriousness of crimes of sexual violence, such as rape, may also differ. Behavior that violates local social mores may be seen as justification, consent, or provocation. Please exercise caution and make certain to inform yourself of what procedures to follow in the event of incident.

It is just as important for men to understand the prevailing gender roles in their program location, and to be sensitive to the challenges that women in the program may face that men may not. Men are encouraged to recognize situations in which men can, by their own behavior and actions, meaningfully reduce women’s exposure to risk and harassment.

The Lawrence University Sexual Misconduct Policy applies while you are studying on a Lawrence off-campus study program and SHARE (Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources & Education) resources and processes are available to you.  You are encouraged to familiarize yourself with this policy and to let us know if you have questions about this information in the context of off-campus study. If you are the victim of sexual misconduct, you are encouraged to inform on-site program staff as soon as possible to provide support and connect you with the appropriate resources.  SHARE and Lawrence’s Off-Campus Programs office are available to assist you as possible. 

Questions you should consider for further research:

  • What are considered typical gender roles in my host society? What are society’s perceptions and expectations for men and women 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 citizens’ attitudes about socially accepted gender roles? Are there aspects of my personal values that I am willing to compromise on in order to make safe and culturally informed choices?
  • How are relationships (both platonic and romantic) between men and women expressed in my host culture?
  • What do I need to know about birth control, STD prevention, and safe sex in my host culture?
  • What advice does the program, past participants, and other sources offer about whether there are particular times, locations, or situations when it is less appropriate to be out alone?
  • How are issues such as gender-based violence, sexual harassment, or sexual assault understood and treated in my host society?

To reduce the possibility of harassment you may wish to consider the following:

  • To avoid harassment you may need to distance yourself from certain people, if not be actively unfriendly. If you find yourself in a situation in which you feel threatened, you should immediately take steps to rectify the situation, even if this might be seen as “culturally insensitive.” Listen to your instincts. Personal safety should always be your first concern.
  • As unfair as it might be, in many countries young American women are stereotyped as being promiscuous. Thus it is possible that innocuous, natural ways of interacting in America (such as eye contact or holding hands) may be misinterpreted in another cultural context. Be especially careful with your clothing and body language. As a rule, you should try whenever possible to observe local customs and try not to stand out.
  • Research gender roles in your host culture and the dos and don’ts. Your program sponsor will be one good resource for this information.
  • Be aware and alert. Know your surroundings if possible. Have a map. When possible consider asking another woman for directions. Act like you know where you are going even when you may not. Project a confident attitude.
  • Pay attention to dressing in a way that is appropriate to and respectful of your host culture.
  • Take basic safety precautions such as being sure someone knows where you are traveling, how to contact you, and when you’ll return; have access to funds so you are able to react if you feel unsafe by taking a taxi at night, upgrade transportation, or switch hotel/hostel; learn at least basic phrases in the local language; try to arrive in your destination city during the day; know the local emergency phone number; travel at night with someone (especially when you are unfamiliar with the location); know the location of nearest US embassies and consulate while traveling.
  • If you are being cat called, avoid eye contact and keep walking.  Avoid eye contact as this could be perceived as an invitation in some cultures.  Consider engaging in conversation with a local person to deflect unwanted attention.  Walking with a male friend can also deflect unwanted attention.
  • Don’t become complacent. As you become more comfortable understanding daily life in your host culture, don’t forget that differences in gender and relationship roles can still manifest themselves.
  • If you encounter abuse or harassment, have questions about culturally appropriate behavior, or find yourself having questions or feeling uncomfortable, contact your program staff. Always feel free to contact the LU’s Off-Campus Programs office.

Additional Resources: