Advancing gender equality in Vietnam: A crucial balancing act 

Heralded by the hashtag #balanceforbetter, International Women’s Day 2019 arrives March 8 with the call to create a gender-balanced working world. While balance is important for all workers throughout an organization, it is particularly relevant to women who – much more so than their male colleagues – are often expected to strike a balance between career building and homemaking, between bringing home a paycheck and bringing up the children, and even between compassion and ambition.

From a more practical perspective, gender balance means creating more equitable opportunities for women, particularly at the highest levels of an organization. According to “The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in Asia Pacific”, a report published by McKinsey’s business and research arm, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), women in the region continue to be concentrated in lower growth sectors and lower paying roles – with 3.2 times more women in clerical support than men. Despite the increasing role of the digital economy, women are 0.6 times less in tech. The talent pipeline also narrows for women, with a drop of over 50% of representation from entry level to senior management.

Beyond the moral and ethical implications suggested by this imbalance, gender inequality puts corporations at a disadvantage. McKinsey research from our ‘Women Matter’ series has shown that greater representation of women in senior corporate positions correlates to improved business performance. In essence, diversity leads to more dynamic discussions, a broader range of factors considered, and healthy challenges to conventional thinking. The benefits apply to governments, as well as private organizations.

Ultimately, measures that help promote gender balance such as flexible hours and expanded parental leave, directly improve the work-life balance of all employees. These factors can make all the difference to today’s top talent when choosing and staying with their employers, many favour multiple income streams, whilst the work-life balance and other aspects of happiness are considered more important than in previous generators.

A trisector effort

Much is at stake. MGI’s report has estimated that $12 trillion can be added to global growth by advancing gender equality. Vietnam could add $40 billion a year to its GDP by 2025, which would see its current economic growth trajectory by about 10 percent.

Capturing these benefits requires not just a vision and a will, but also proactive and focused measures. Governments, companies, and society, which make up a key trisector, must work together.

The nation has already taken steps to address some of the sources of gender inequality. Domestically, the formal equality of women and men in society is widely regarded as one of the legacies of the socialist revolution. Today, almost half its small-business entrepreneurs are women, whilst participation in the labour force is almost level, making it one of the highest rates in the world. The literacy rate among women is 92 percent, and female graduates account for over half of the bachelor's degrees awarded in the country, more than 30 percent of the master's degrees, and 17 percent of the doctorates. Women also have prominent roles in science and technology, and the percentage of women in engineering careers has increased in recent years.

However, numerous issues still persist and require improvement. Household chores, including childcare and care for the elderly, remain the primary responsibilities of women, especially mothers, and more attention is needed in social services, which can alleviate the burden of caregiving and housework on working women.

The first actor needed in the trisector effort to encourage gender balance is the government, which must build on ongoing efforts to create gender parity. The relative success in bringing highly skilled women into the workforce is partly a result of family-friendly laws that support child care and maternity programmes.

In addition, the National Strategy on Gender Equality has been an important first step in supporting women reaching managerial and leadership positions, as well as encouraging a narrowing of the gender gap in politics. In 2015, UNESCO and the Ministry of Education and Training agreed to implement the Gender Equality and Girls’ Education Initiative, which was designed to raise awareness, narrow the development gap, and promote the status of women. The scheme pledged to assess the implications on women and men of education reforms.

However, challenges remain, especially in terms of pay gaps, high-level representation, and access to wage employment. Continually improving policies in these crucial areas will help sustain the country’s exemplary rate of participation by women in the workforce.

Case for gender equality

Companies in Vietnam also have a role to play in pushing forward gender equality. Though the proportion of women in management positions has increased, it remains low in comparison with the increases enjoyed by women in the workforce generally. According to a 2017 Financial Times survey, even though Vietnamese women have a high participation rate in the labour force, they have the lowest female-to-male ratio in top management, with one woman to every eight men, compared with 1:5.6 in Malaysia, 1:2.8 in the Philippines and 1:2.2 in Thailand. Further, pay gaps still exist between men and women doing the same job, there are fewer opportunities for women to access high-income jobs, and women remain more vulnerable when businesses need to eliminate jobs.

As a corporate challenge that remain, 83 percent of job advertisements in Vietnam prioritise male candidates. A report from the General Statistics Office also shows that the proportion of women in leadership roles has declined, and men are paid 11 percent more than women for the same job.

As the country continues to progress, businesses need to promote awareness of workplace gender equality, first by re-evaluating their own human resource policies, and then by building a strategic plan designed to promote gender equality. Firms should also focus on diversifying their workforce, providing equal opportunities to both men and women in recruitment, employment, and promotion. Training programmes for women to move into leadership positions are also needed as well as providing training on gender equality for employees throughout the organisation.

With equal career opportunities, businesses will be able to create a sustainable corporate culture, increase employee satisfaction, and attract and retain talent. Moreover, gender equality policies will also contribute to image enhancement and brand building, which are crucial for economic development.

Society is the last element of the trisector. Deep-rooted attitudes play an integral part in limiting the potential of women and investment in public awareness that shifts social norms can help ease the path for working women. The movement to change traditional mindsets may be slow, but it is essential for long-term change.

Education and awareness are crucial. Educational centres could consider ways of removing gender bias in tandem with companies. For instance, sponsorship and mentoring programs could be implemented for women to encourage them to participate more broadly in the economy, including in STEM (sciences, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Even though half of all university faculties in Vietnam employ women, only 11 percent gain professorships, with those in the STEM fields considerably lower. This is undoubtedly an area that could be improved through education, awareness and mentorship.

Gender parity in Vietnam cannot be achieved without conscious effort, and the challenge is increased by changes in demographics and increased automation, which looks set to increase pressure on the domestic labour force. If the necessary actors work together, progress can be made and everyone can enjoy the benefits of #balanceforbetter.

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