HO CHI MINH CITY – Vietnam is one of the few countries in the world that boasts of the highest ratio of women participating in the labour force (~72%). Vietnam also has very high percentage of women holding top management positions (~28% compared to global average of 19%). The government has also taken initiatives by revising the labour code and also rolling out a national strategy for Gender Equality.

However, there are still many barriers to gender equality in the workplace in Vietnam. The proportion of women involved in management and leadership has increased but is still low in general and disproportionate to the increase in the number of female workers. In some organizations a pay gap still exists between men and women doing the same job, there are fewer opportunities for women to access high-income jobs than for men, and women are also more vulnerable when businesses need to cut down their workforce.

It was in this backdrop that the Vietnam Business Coalition for Women’s Empowerment (VBCWE) came to be established in early 2018 by Investing in Women (IW), an initiative of the Australian Government. The key mandate being pursuing workplace gender equality (WGE) and women’s economic empowerment (WEE). Vietnam is one of the four countries in the SE Asia region chosen to execute this program.

Hang Le
Hang Le

The coalition is supported by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI), Vietnam Business Council for Sustainable Development (VBCSD) as well as UN Women, ILO, IFC, CARE and Oxfam.

Ms Hang Le, Country Director for the Vietnam Business Coalition for Women’s Empowerment, shared the achievements and the road ahead in this exclusive interaction with the Women Icons Network.

What has been the response to the initiatives of VBCWE so far?

The coalition has recruited 12 members which are influential businesses in various industries, to name a few: Deloitte Vietnam, Vietnam Maritime Commercial Joint Stock Bank, Southern Airports Services Joint Stock Company, Vietnam Electricity Corporation, Traphaco Pharmaceutical Jsc., etc. With more than 145,000 people employed by VBCWE’s members in total, we are working hard to spread the impact of WGE initiatives in the business community.

So far VBCWE has been well recognized as a centre of excellence for WGE in Vietnam among both business community and social organizations. The Vietnamese businesses, especially big companies are paying more and more attention to sustainable development goals in general and WGE related areas in particular. As for now, VBCWE is the only organization in Vietnam to provide businesses with comprehensive solutions, from assessment, training and consultancy to help build a thorough WGE strategy, through which improve work environment, enhance business performance and achieve sustainability goals.

What kind of activities are usually carried out?

VBCWE’s major activities include:

  • Support businesses to undergo workplace gender equality assessment in order to achieve regional and global recognition/certification – EDGE and GEARS (Gender Equality Assessment, Results and Strategies) which is a measurement tool of workplace gender equality (WGE) being applied in 4 Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam). VBCWE has supported 8 companies in Vietnam to assess and achieve EDGE certification. VBCWE also works closely with these companies in the implementation of the WGE action plan, helping them really improve and transform their work environment.
  • Provide trainings and consultancy on WGE related topics to businesses, business associations and other partners. The topics include: WGE and WEE, D&I corporate culture, Inclusive leadership, Anti-Sexual harassment at the workplace, Flexible work arrangements.

    Dialogue Leadership Vision: Gender Equality – The key to Business Sustainable Development
  • VBCWE has been advocating for gender equality in the workplace through various events. VBCWE has also been recognized by governmental organizations for our credibility in the field of WGE. We have built partnership with VBCSD (the Vietnam Business Council for Sustainable Development) to promote sustainability in Vietnamese businesses, especially from WGE perspectives. VBCWE have been invited to join the assessment board for the Program on Benchmarking and Announcing top Sustainable Companies in Vietnam. We provide consultancy regarding workplace gender equality related indicators in the Corporate Sustainability Index (CSI) which is the assessment base for the Program.
  • Actively advocating for policy reform regarding WGE issues, VBCWE participated in the consultation of the draft for the National Strategy on Gender Equality for the period of 2021-2030 and provided suggestions related to raising awareness of gender equality in the workplace, eliminating gender stereotypes in talent management cycle, including recruitment, promotion, remuneration, and leadership development training.
Is there engagement of women employees in the program or is it completely employer led?

Most of VBCWE’s activities engage with employers, as we identify leaders and key decision-makers in businesses to be our main target audiences. However, there is still significant engagement of employees in the program (not only females but also males). The employees are greatly impacted and beneficial from the changes in companies’ policies. For example: Flexible work arrangements application will enable employees to have better work-life balance; Providing men with access to longer paternity and parental leave and encouraging its uptake creates opportunities to balance time spent for unpaid caring work between men and women, through which will benefit individuals, families and organisations.

What is the level of awareness both among employers and employees on the subject of gender equality? Are there any key challenges?

Awareness about gender equality in the workplace in Vietnam is still very low. Leaders at some enterprises still hold a belief that gender equality means having a perfectly balanced workforce (50 per cent male – 50 per cent female), or having preferential policies for women. They should understand that gender equality ensures benefits for both genders.

Vietnam Corporate Forum in Ho Chi Minh City
– Eliminating barriers for Effective Governance & Human Resource Development

On another hand, many business leaders confirm that there is no inequality or discrimination in their workplaces. However, when we dig deeper, statistics show that inequalities do exist, in recruitment, promotion, pay, and career development opportunities. As businesses don’t understand thoroughly the concept of workplace gender equality, they are mistaking neglection for completion.

In general, both employers and employees are still strongly influenced by the social gender norms that expect women to be the primary care-giver and men to be the main income earner. This leads to many unconscious biases in the workplace throughout the talent management cycle, from recruitment to promotion, opportunities to uptake leadership positions, or succession planning.

What according to you is the most significant inequality at workplace in Vietnam? 

Career opportunities for women leaders, particularly board representation is the most significant inequality at workplace in Vietnam. This is originated from the gender bias throughout the career development process.

From a regulatory standpoint are there clear guidelines for companies to work towards better gender representation in their workforce? 

In Vietnam, there is no specific regulation that provides guidelines for businesses towards better gender representation in the workplace. The draft for National Strategy on Gender Equality for the period of 2021-2030 mentions an indicator on the percentage of women in the management board in general, but doesn’t provide specific guidance for companies.

Is there anything that is unique to your market that is either impacts progress towards gender equality at workplaces?

According to a recent SNAP (Social Norms, Attitudes and Practices) survey conducted by IW,  Vietnamese women are as ambitious as men to get promoted and reach senior management roles (84% of respondents from both genders said they would aim for senior management positions), and this result of Vietnam is higher than other surveyed countries in the region. This could be a momentum to speed up the journey to WGE goals in Vietnam.

Support from the government is also helpful. However, it is important to recognize and emphasize the influence of the gender norms and stereotypes that have been shaped and lasted for over a thousand years. This is the biggest obstacle that impedes achieving the goal of WGE in Vietnam.