Gender equality has moved from activist corners to corporate board rooms. Global business leaders recognize that a sustainable business model needs gender diversity. In Vietnam, many public and private initiatives have emerged in recent years.
We had a chat with Le Thanh Hang, Executive Director of the Vietnam Business Coalition for Women’s Empowerment (VBCWE). VBCWE is among the first local consulting firms to provide clients with advice and training on gender equality.
Vietnam has an impressive number of women participating in the workforce. Does that mean gender equality is not a critical issue in Vietnam?
It is encouraging that around 71% of Vietnamese women participate in the labor force, a higher rate than that of regional peers. However, there are issues statistics could not capture.
For example, women are subject to double standards. Our society expects women to be perfect homemakers without much support from their partners in housework and childcare. At the same time, women need to earn bread for their families since many households will struggle to live on one income.
Despite a high labor participation rate, women in leadership roles are still a minority in Vietnam.
What roles does Vietnamese culture play in this regard?
Our traditional norms define a clear role for each gender. Men are expected to be successful and capable of providing for their families. Women are supposed to play a supporting role in family life. This ideology carries on in Vietnam’s modern society.
It is crucial to recognize that individuals are incredibly diverse. Rigidly defined social norms do not reflect reality. Men can be caring and family-oriented, while women can be driven and career-focused.
What are the main challenges women face at work?
First, prejudices are enormous obstacles. They vary from ideas of women being only good at mundane jobs to female leaders often regarded as unpleasant characters.
Second, women are paid less than men. In Vietnam, the weighted gender pay gap based on monthly wages was 13.7%. That means for every $100 a man receives, a woman only gets $86.3, according to a study by the International Labor Organization.
Third, corporations do not consider the specific needs of women, such as childcare and motherhood. It is hard for a diverse group of people to work effectively with a uniformly designed system.
Finally, sexual harassment is a touchy and less-spoken issue. Sexual harassment at work in Vietnam is not uncommon. They range from a simple insensitive comment about female appearance to serious physical misconduct.
Do men benefit from gender equality?
It is a common myth that gender equality is about women.
Vietnamese young men are under great pressure to achieve success, earn more money, own a house, and so on.
The burden is so heavy that it leads to depression and even increases suicidal rates among young men. Research called ‘Men and masculinities in a globalising Vietnam’ by the Institute for Social Development Studies shows.
A more gender-equal culture will alleviate pressures on all genders, creating a more healthy and balanced society.
Whether women themselves contribute to gender inequality?
Like anyone else, women believe in social norms. They sometimes withdraw when opportunities are presented to them. Many young Vietnamese girls were told they are not good at technical or demanding jobs.
Women also compete with other women. Some prefer to work with men as men are perceived as ‘less of a troublemaker.’
In short, women also have prejudices against women.
Why should companies care about gender equality?
Businesses reap great benefits from gender equality.
Gender diversity fosters creativity and brings more effective solutions to firms.
For example, when a firm designs a new product, a team dominated by males might not see the needs of female consumers, which might account for 50% of their customer pools.
A more inclusive company culture helps firms recruit and retain talents, especially, in Vietnam, where women participate actively in the workforce.
Besides, this is a global trend. If Vietnam wants to integrate deeper into the global economy, fostering gender equality is vital. Today, global consumers and foreign investors care more and more about corporate social responsibilities.
Let's talk about your initiatives, what inspired you to lead VBCWE?
My 27-year career centers around social developments. I worked in international and local NGOs, focusing on different social issues. Gender equality is one of the areas that I deeply care about.
The company was founded thanks to the funding from the project ‘Investing in Women’, sponsored by the Australian government.
What are the typical profiles of your clients?
They are mainly international companies, which already have an initial awareness about workplace gender equality. We also have local clients, mainly led by a new generation of entrepreneurs who believe in the value of gender diversity.
We hope to reach out more to local firms, offering our expertise and helping them solve business problems through gender equality.
How does VBCWE help clients to achieve this goal?
It is a comprehensive process. We start with gathering information and interviewing stakeholders.
Our next step is to analyze data and assess the current policy. We then propose an actionable plan.
But our process will not end there. We accompany our clients, turning plans into actions. We also produce training courses to raise awareness and offer advice.
In the end, we reassess our journey and provide various levels of certification.
What challenges does VBCWE face when working with clients?
Awareness is key. Many firms are unaware that their working environment is gender-biased until they see the outcomes of our assessments.
Unlike a marketing campaign with instant results, gender diversity needs time to show its benefits.
Lastly, gender equality often stands last in business priorities, either due to lack of awareness or firms busy with other business issues like profitability targets. COVID-19 is a good example.
With funding, why was VBCWE established as a social enterprise instead of an NGO?
We want to build a sustainable firm. Our existing and potential clients will help support our business in the long run, even when funding is not available in the future.
More importantly, when clients are willing to pay for our services, they see the value of our work and are more driven to make change happen.