When Trang Dang launched Ru9 in 2018, she had her eyes fixed on a vision: to improve Vietnamese consumers’ quality of life by combining science and technology to create design-conscious sleeping mattresses. The mattress industry in Vietnam wasn’t that big, given the relative absence of local players and limited options for consumers; and it wasn’t a common sector for female entrepreneurs. Trang was determined to change all that.
But when articles about her “sleep company” came out, headlines that blatantly bore the words “hot girl opens sleep care company” (and in similar phrasing) eclipsed the very purpose of Trang’s endeavors. She wasn't a “hot girl” opening a company; she was - and still is - an empowered entrepreneur who has something big to contribute to Vietnamese society.
Regrettably, Trang wasn’t the first and the last woman to be objectified by the local media and by industries suffused with gender stereotypes and biases.
Women in Vietnam continue to experience discrimination and stereotyping despite a strong legal framework on gender equality the national government has advanced in recent years. Across different sectors, women often lack economic and political opportunities, and have lesser access to productive resources, education and skills development.
Conference on gender equality across industries
On Tuesday, ‘Gender Equality Across Industries’ — a non-profit movement funded by the US Consulate General in Vietnam — kicked off with a conversation on gender equality in press and media, bringing industry experts into one platform that expertly and openly navigates a seemingly hushed topic.
The topic of gender equality is relatively new in Vietnam, often limited to women vs men equality, and mainly discussed among the expatriate community, high level professionals, or limited within a few industries only. This issue exists in almost every industry, and gender unbalance partly reflects this, according to GEAI.
Ruby Nguyen, COO of Vietcetera and one of the key speakers at the virtual conference, pointed out that gender-based discriminations and biases remain a big challenge for Vietnam because conversations about them are all too focused on ‘hows’ instead of ‘whys.’
“Most people know or have heard about gender inequality. But everyone’s focusing on how to eradicate it or promote equality. There’s not enough conversation about why — why it’s important for Vietnam and the world to push for this.”
Ruby shared that she, too, has her own personal struggles as a woman in a competitive professional world — called “ambitious” because she had big visions and goals for her career.
“I’ve been in several situations when people said I was ambitious, and they meant that in a negative way. People made me feel that it’s an undesirable quality, and that women like me should only listen and comply.”
Chi Pham, co-head of strategy and planning at Dentsu Redder, echoed Ruby’s sentiments.
“Equality is a very broad topic, and it can mean different things to different people, but when I break it down — equality means equal opportunity for all genders, equal accessibility to choose what you aspire to do, what’s right for you without being judged, it’s being included in the society.”
It’s true. When it relates to a certain professional career, there are many doubts, perceptions, or even bias related to gender, which sometimes come across unconsciously for many. It results in gender unbalance in certain industries and positions, unfair doubts or mockeries of one’s capability and gender just because they are not among the dominant gender of a specific job, which might consequently lead to unproductive performance or worse, mental health issues.
Forbes CEO Cuong Dang emphasized that while gender equality is still an uphill battle in Vietnam’s local media industry alone, his local publishing company strives to create a workplace where people of all genders can thrive and grow. In fact, when Cuong joined Forbes, a significant number of leadership roles were deservedly taken by talented and empowered Vietnamese women.
For Long Nguyen, senior communication lecturer at RMIT University, Vietnam’s “very traditional Asian culture” is one reason it’s hard for the country to take one full step towards gender equality.
“It’s in our Asian culture to have women stay at home while male figures go out to work. And in Vietnam, when old and new generations of families live under one roof, it’s harder to break out from that mentality.”
Media’s portrayal of women’s roles in the society is a significant factor as well, added Long. “Detergent commercials all have women in them. Have we ever seen a television commercial where men do the laundry?”
What the press and media can do
As key players in the press and media industry in Vietnam, both Ruby and Cuong put weight on responsible journalism, noting that the poorly-worded headlines about Ru9 founder Trang Dang will never have a space in Vietcetera and Forbes.
Chi, meanwhile, also reiterated the role of advertising agencies in promoting campaigns that tackle social issues, even beyond gender equality. With most Vietnamese having access to mobile gadgets and the Internet, it’s easier to spread awareness and share information that can help transform a dysfunctional society into one that fosters equality and diversity.
With the influence it holds in shaping perceptions and understanding, the media industry — print, broadcast, digital, film, interactive, and even games and entertainment — has both power and obligation to produce gender-transformative content and build platforms that inspire their audiences to take active roles in social conversations, promote inclusion by breaking norms, and redress gender imbalances.
Not using “hot girl” to tell stories of women can be a good start.