The Gender Gap in Vietnam is Narrower Than You Might Think

Working - Vietnam: June 26, 2018

2017 was a year of revolution for women across the world. Massive women’s marches were organised in international cities to bring light to the injustices that still face the female gender today. Social media has kept the flame burning by creating popular hashtags including actress Emma Watson’s #HeforShe male feminist tag, the #YesAllWomen flag where women disclosed stories of everyday sexism and now the #MeToo hashtag where women are talking about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. #tòasoạnsạch, meaning "clean newsroom," is the hashtag specific to Vietnam that was created in response to sexual harassment and abuse of Vietnamese news media employees.

In Vietnam as in other countries subjects about women’s roles in society and whether there is gender equality in the workplace are trending.

For good reason. Women are a force to be reckoned with in business.

A 2017 study by World Bank-Goldman Sachs shows that microenterprises—small businesses with no more than six employees, such as market shops, street food stalls—are the majority of female-run businesses in Vietnam, coming in at 57 percent.

A surprising report by Grant-Thorton Vietnam, which was presented in March at the event “Women in Business Strive for Excellence”, put on by the British Business Group Vietnam (BBGV), revealed that Vietnam offers women much more egality in the workforce than other neighbouring Asian countries. Ho Ngoc Anh, events and marketing manager for BBGV, was part of the team that organised the event. The panel included some of the top female leaders in Vietnam like Truc Nguyen, CFO of HSBC Vietnam and Tran Thi Thanh Mai, managing director of marketing agency Kantar TNS.

Women owned businessesImage source: pcworld.com.vn

Ho said that one of the most interesting topics discussed was about the current gender balance in the workplace. Out of two equal candidates for a job—one male, one female—who would be more likely to be hired, the women leaders were asked. Almost all of the female respondents surprised the audience by saying it would be the woman.

“Confucius beliefs present in the Vietnamese culture have pushed men forward in the past”, Ho said. “Luckily, Vietnam has been trying to escape the Chinese way of thinking and has also been affected by French culture.” Important female figures such as the French suffragettes in the early 1900’s helped spur the feminist movement worldwide.

“We’ve become more and more open to opportunities for the ladies in the community. We also have very inspiring women, ambassadors in the United Nations, powerful women in business and female war heroes that stood up for their families”, Ho said.

Moreover, a survey in the report asked male and female employees in companies in Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam whether their companies had made progress in the last one to three years in terms of gender diversity. Respondents reported that 87 percent of men and 84 percent of women in Vietnam said their firms had become more inclusive compared to only 43 percent of women and 82 percent men in Singapore. In Malaysia, 54 percent of women and 79 percent of men reported their firm was progressing in terms of diversity.

From a jack hammer-wielding female emerging from a pit in a construction zone to women holding top roles in the government, such as Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh, who is currently serving as Vice President of Vietnam, women are present in every sector and at every level of business.

Women owned businessesImage source: mfa.go.th

75 percent of businesses in Vietnam have at least one woman in a senior management role and 25 percent are CEOs, these numbers are some of the highest in Southeast Asia.

Ho feels that there is still work to be done to make sure that women are getting paid equally for their work but the current climate is largely positive.

A Delicate Balance

Esther Lam is the co-owner and designer of Esther Lam Lingerie. The creations showcased on Lam’s website feature female models in ethereal lace held up by structured boning, the lingerie’s underwire skeleton. Lingerie is a distinctly female-oriented business but it is also one in which gender roles can be a topic of discussion, simply because women’s undergarments are fetishised and are said to be made for the male taste.

But Lam said she created her line out of “the desire for all girls to pamper their skin.” It is a brand for women created by women, and there in lies the strength.

Women owned businessesImage source: Esther Lam Lingerie

Lam believes sexism still exists in Vietnam because of the deep-seated traditions in the country. “There are surely cultural sensitivities about female identity, and Vietnamese women need to be more decisive but reasonable, and have intelligent methods of solving problems.”

When asked what challenges women face as business owners in Vietnam, Lam responded that “A woman has more roles to finish than just business ones. She has to learn how to harmonize with all roles in her life, or quit almost all to fulfil her dream.”

A Woman’s Place in the Home is Building It

Fong-Chan Paw Zeuthen’s design work is as complicated as she is—both strong and approachable, modern and nostalgic, Scandinavian and Asian. Zeuthen was born in Thailand and was then adopted by Danish parents; a translation error during the adoption made her name have a Chinese edge to it.

When asked whether she had ever considered changing her name, Zeuthen laughed. “No”, she said. She said she likes to walk into a room and not be what people expect her to be. Sometimes when she meets with major real estate developers, she’ll come into a meeting, the only woman surrounded by 20 men. She knows that often they’re expecting to meet with a Chinese man or even a white Dane but when an Asian woman appears unanticipated, Zeuthen said the surprise can be powerful.

This unpredictability is part of the approach that Zeuthen has used to rise up in a typically androcentric profession, a métier heavy in men: architecture and design.

Women owned businessesImage source: KAZE

Zeuthen came to Vietnam 16 years ago for a job as a furniture designer. Eight years later she began her own interior design and architecture business, KAZE. Since then Zeuthen has turned KAZE into a top design firm in Vietnam. Given the size and visibility of projects—from the Vinpearl Ha Thinh and Marriott Resort and Spa Hoi An to offices and private residences—, you’ve likely seen Zeuthen’s work before.

Women owned businessesImage source: fixi.vn

Zeuthen said that she owes a certain amount of her success to Vietnam itself. It is one of the few countries in Asia where women consistently hold the same jobs as men. Zeuthen opined that male and female roles interchange easily, more so than in other Asian countries, and perhaps that is because of Vietnamese history.

There has been a high presence of female fighters and workers in Vietnam’s past. From the Hai Ba Trung sisters, revolutionaries who led the people to take down the Eastern Han Dynasty to Nguyen Thi Dinh, the first female general in the Vietnamese People’s Army, the bravery of women in Vietnam has been well-documented. However, the modern boardroom is a different beast and both the women on the BBGV panel and Zeuthen mentioned that today the number one thing holding women back in business is their confidence.

“Women in business in Vietnam, and everywhere else in the world, need self-confidence to build up trust. Women need to start asking for what they want”, Zeuthen said.

Women owned businessesImage source: wordpress.com

For example, Zeuthen said that men come to talk to her about salary and they walk in expecting a high number but they’ll negotiate. Whereas women “are not ready to fight for it. If they don’t get the salary they want from the beginning they walk away rather than fighting.”

Gender Equality, a Work in Progress

In many ways Vietnam is ahead of the curve in terms of gender equality in the workplace. One clear example is in the area of paid maternity leave.

Female workers in Vietnam are able to claim up to 6 months of full-pay leave through the national insurance system. The father is allowed 5 days paternity leave.

A typical allowance from other countries may be just 12 weeks or less of unpaid leave. “[Vietnam] is the most generous [country] for paid maternity leave in the region, and even in the world”, VN Express wrote in their 2017 coverage on the issue.

Vietnam, like most places in the world, is still a work-in-progress regarding women’s rights. However, women are out there, at the top, already moving the conversation forward.

Video source: UN Women Asia and the Pacific

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