Maternity, misogyny, and basic male-female differences have long dogged the pursuit of equal opportunity at work. Here, women of all ages and professions weigh in on the gender balance in business — and what makes Vietnam unique. By Lien Hoang. Photos by Fred Wissink.

It’s a little hard to imagine, but Nguyen Thi Viet Thanh said that at her company, she and the staff often say they love each other.

Thanh, who founded Anphabe as a sort of LinkedIn for professionals in Vietnam, uses the term liberally but broadly, to say she appreciates her employees and the work they do.

She doesn’t think so, but Thanh’s approach — bringing love into the workplace — beams out womanly vibes. She admitted to some qualities associated with women (caring, vulnerable, understanding) but balances them with others more often expected of men (aggressive, decisive, ambitious).

“All women CEOs I know have both of those, male and female characteristics,” Thanh said. “You have to know when to wear different hats.”

Similarly, most of the women interviewed for this article said they take an androgynous attitude to work. But in business, there’s less agreement when it comes to the gender gap. Some deny that it exists, saying the fairer sex has as fair a shot as men, while others believe Vietnamese must change their perspectives and policies to ram through the glass ceiling. As companies the world over debate the merits of bringing more women on board, and strategies to do so, Vietnam grapples with the same questions from a viewpoint that is sometimes particular to the country.

‘Half of socialism’
Women make up 27 percent of senior management in Vietnam, according to a 2012 Grant Thornton survey. That compares with 32 percent in ASEAN, though both numbers declined from 2011, even as the percentage in Europe rose.

But many object that the data doesn’t truly represent women’s significance to the Vietnamese economy. Just look around at all the sidewalk cafes, small grocers, and other mom-and-pop stores — usually, women run the show. They control the family business, just as they control family budgeting. In part, that’s universal among women, seen as the keepers of the household. But it’s also a legacy of war, said Hoa Sen University president Tran Bui Phuong. She said that as Vietnamese men went off to battle into the 1970s, their wives, mothers, and daughters took over quotidian functions, such as maintaining the house and making a living.

They played their part in war, too. From the women warriors in videos at the Cu Chi tunnels, to the two Trung sisters (Hai Ba Trung) who died leading the charge against imperial China, women feature prominently in Vietnamese history. Gender equality also comprises an obvious brick in the egalitarian foundation of the communist state. As Uncle Ho said during the birth of modern Vietnam, “If we do not emancipate women, we would only build up half of socialism.”

Last month Vietnam marked Women’s Day, and the World Bank blogged that it is “a front runner among developing countries when it comes to gender equality”. Today, many women are free to go out, drink, smoke, or have sex outside of marriage; these might not be the indicators that the World Bank had in mind, but they do correlate with Vietnam as a liberated society. And in the world of business, many like to point out, some of the most well-known and successful companies are led by women, from Nguyen Thi Mai Thanh at REE (refrigeration and electrical engineering) to Vinamilk’s Mai Kieu Lien. She declined to be interviewed but was the only Vietnamese on Forbes’ list of 50 Power Businesswomen in Asia this year.

Work-life balance

The country, though, can’t change its past, one based heavily on Confucian principles of respect that the ruled must show the ruler, the son must show the father, and the wife must show the husband. The effect is that males, who in a 107:100 ratio remain the preferred sex of newborns, continue to dominate in Vietnam, which checked in at 79 out of 135 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Gender Gap Index (it has slipped each year since 2007, when it debuted at 42 on the list). Older generations and rural families, especially, still insist that women stay home to handle the three C’s: cook, clean, and care for the children.

Chu Thi Hong Anh said that’s why she and her overprotective husband divorced after more than 10 years and two daughters.

“Vietnamese men are not ready to help women yet,” said Hong Anh, a leading lady of media and advertising in Vietnam for 20 years. In red ankle boots and a button-up dress she designed herself, Hong Anh told me she served as president or chairwoman of a string of companies but now produces shows for several VTV outlets.

Hong Anh’s ex-husband didn’t square with her life as a determined career woman. Dang Thi Hoang Yen, the chairwoman of developer Tan Tao Group, said this kind of disconnect is the biggest challenge underlying the gender gap. Yen, a regular contender for the title of Vietnam’s richest woman with assets in the nine figures, told AsiaLIFE in an email that too many men assign their wives the role of homemaker, and themselves that of breadwinner.

The 2012 Board of Directors Survey, conducted by Harvard academics and sampling 58 countries, shows that women on corporate boards are much less likely to be married than men (72 percent versus 90 percent) and more than twice as likely to be divorced (10 percent versus 4 percent).

No wonder, then, that Sheryl Sandberg, one of the most recognisable female entrepreneurs in the world, gave this advice last year: “The most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry. I have an awesome husband, and we’re 50/50.” The Facebook CEO is publishing a book in 2013 called, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Many women here attribute part of their success to husbands who support their work, if not share domestic duties outright. Thanh, the social networker with a toothy laugh, said she had her husband take the children to school so that she could meet me the morning of our interview. The couple also employs two nannies. Thanh oversees a dozen staff members at Anphabe but calls the nannies her “most important employees”.

For women all over the world, family more than anything else dictates professional outlook. Fewer and fewer people see these tugging desires — kids versus career — as a zero-sum game. But it’s been called a ‘universal conundrum’ that women’s prime childbearing years coincide with the ideal time to establish themselves professionally.

“I don’t want to be too career-oriented,” said Anna Vo, a young, rouge-cheeked fashion designer who opened a high-end boutique in October. “I want to have kids.” She partly inherited that mindset, and the idea of an eponymous clothing store, from her mother, Le Thuy Nga.

The tough matriarch and textile boss has worked in fashion since the 1980s with some measure of success, and she applauds men in her daughter’s generation for welcoming more women into the fold. But she doesn’t want women to give up children for their jobs. “If they’re too successful, too ambitious, they don’t have enough time for family,” Thuy Nga said in Vietnamese, fondling a white dog in her purse with French-tipped nails. If the feminist revolution proved that women could work as well as men, then the counterrevolution declared that stay-at-home moms mattered just as much as their professional peers.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, who left a post under US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in part to be with family, stirred the pot in June with her Atlantic cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The commentary attracted record views and bemoaned post-feminist societal pressures that have the perverse effect of blaming women if they don’t juggle work and children.

On that front, women do have some advantages in Vietnam. First, the enduring trend of three-generation homes means grandparents often look after the children so both parents can work. Second, even lower-middle-class families generally can afford daycare or a live-in caregiver.

Not that that solves everything. The women I interviewed showed difficulty severing themselves from their children, such as Dale Carnegie Vietnam’s Nguyen Trinh Khanh Linh, who cut short a business trip to Taiwan because her four-month-old got sick. When she returned to Ho Chi Minh City, the doctor commented that the infant looked like she missed her mother. Similarly, Thanh of Anphabe said, “When you’re forced to work while your kid is sick at home, that is a terrible feeling.”

Slaughter wrote of women who “never admitted to taking time out for a child’s doctor appointment or school performance” because they didn’t want their motherhood to be treated as a weakness at the office. But Hong Anh, the media mogul as well as private investor, takes the opposite tactic. Her rule is never to ignore a call from her daughters, even if it means cutting off a meeting. Men accept her role as a mother, and Hong Anh said she takes advantage of that.

Lady on board

Those women who do step out of the kitchen and into the boardroom don’t always meet a warm welcome. At Grant Thornton Vietnam, the accounting firm, Nguyen Thi Vinh Ha is the lone woman on a five-member board. Her colleagues are fine (“Having a lady in the board, men need to act more proper,” she said), but clients take more convincing. Despite cordial emails, some male clients hesitate to work with Vinh Ha as soon as they realise, in person, that she lacks a Y chromosome.

“You can see it in the first meeting,” Vinh Ha said by phone from her office in Hanoi.

Most come around eventually, as Linh also discovered in her corporate training work at Dale Carnegie, whose operations she established in Vietnam in 2007. Few talk of deliberate sexual harassment, but sexism certainly persists. Linh, whose business card refers to her as chairman and CEO, said she wins them over after a half hour, but men have their doubts at first.

“She’s young, she’s feminine, she’s charming — but can she work?” Linh said during an interview in a conference room at her office labeled ‘Pride Room’.

Women have to prove themselves, or as Yen, one of Vietnam’s wealthiest women, put it: “Therefore, you could say, in order to do business in Vietnam, if a man makes one effort, then women have to try and work two or three times harder.”

It doesn’t help that Vietnamese textbooks pigeonhole women into low-paying jobs that don’t require much intellect. A recent study out of the Hanoi-based Academy of Journalism and Communication showed school books disproportionately cast women as housewives, dressmakers, and farmers, and men as supervisors, doctors, and scientists.

Globally, the Board of Directors Survey concluded that “the primary reason that the percentage of women on boards is not increasing,” according to 35 percent of women polled, “stems from the fact that ‘traditional networks tend to be male-oriented.’” In the backroom politics of communist Vietnam, it’s even harder for women to break into the secretive old boys club that invariably leaks into most top-level business dealings. At every level are companies in which nhau, the Vietnamese drinking and eating binges, is practically a prerequisite to doing business. But women aren’t invited to the outings, or they decline the invitations.

A woman’s touch

In socialist and war campaigns, Vietnamese liked to say of women, “Gioi viec nuoc, dam viec nha,” meaning they served both the home and the homeland well. In less nationalistic contexts they were more likely to say, “Phu nu dam dang,” a compliment to the Renaissance woman who could whip up a bowl of bun bo, lay the baby down for a nap, and make money.

It is the latter contribution that men and women are trying to better understand. Some women succeed by adopting masculine qualities and suppressing others. Thanh takes pains to seem active and happy when she’s not, because she knows crying at work would dash office morale. “That’s really the internal fight I have to deal with as a woman,” she said. Thanh admitted she’s sensitive, so she might take an altercation personally, while a man will “yell at you but next time he’ll have a beer with you”.

Vietnamese women in management positions said they make a point to talk straight with their employees and accept no mistake twice. Do Phan Tieu Khue jokes that people might call her bossy, but she takes pride in her no-nonsense attitude with staff.

“They are scared if they miss my deadline,” she said in an interview at the city’s Renaissance Riverside Hotel, where she is director of marketing and communication.

At the same time, the cheery and spirited Khue is not content with blind obedience. She doesn’t want an employee merely to tell her she’s right, she wants to convince him she’s right. Put another way, women said they prefer some element of consensus rather than an iron-fist management style. Linh cited the Dale Carnegie principle of leading people to a conclusion by asking questions instead of giving direct orders.

That may be one of the advantages researchers say women bring to the corporate table. Study after study attests that businesses profit from diversifying their leadership, gender-wise and otherwise. Observers posit that women help to counter groupthink, stretch companies’ knowledge of what customers want, put more thought into decision-making, exercise patience, and give attention to detail.

In interviews, women also talked repeatedly about deploying a blend of sympathy and feminine charm that, for men, seems more difficult to come by. It takes the form of nicely asking for a task to be done, or having the ability to read between the lines. Linh said men “run away” from situations that require them to be expressive. She recalled training one male client, a marketing executive at a multinational company, who struggled to connect with his employees. “Have you ever asked about their hobbies? Or asked specific questions when it looks like they’re not in a good mood?” she asked him.

Thanh, the social media butterfly, tries to breed an office culture of openness. At Anphabe headquarters, a cubicle-free room with lime-green columns overlooking District 4’s central Hoang Dieu Street, the employees paper the walls with their personal targets. Thanh, whose shelves are lined with Jobs and Trump books, designated herself chief energy officer, charged with invigorating the crew.

Looking forward
Yen, the developer whose riches have ranked among those of top women, proposed a list of solutions to narrow the gender divide: equal pay for equal work, education, a voice in government, and better support networks among women. Add that to the list in Slaughter’s Atlantic article, which called on men to pitch in at home, on businesses to promote family-friendly policies like telecommuting, and on society to recognise new norms of success, such as peaking later in a career or putting in overtime with the kids.

While some businessmen turn to binders full of women, and some countries (like Italy and Norway) are telling companies to step up with gender-based quotas, women here also are telling each other to step up on their own. Phuong, who noted that she is one of just two female presidents at the city’s universities, said women sometimes don’t realise they’re at a disadvantage. “Women are told to do many things for other people and they’re told to sacrifice themselves,” she said. Or, in Hong Anh’s words, “Vietnamese women have the habit — they don’t ask [for] what they need.”

And when they don’t, the economy and the country could be losing out on a vital pillar. Thuy Nga, the elder fashion designer of the mother-daughter duo, said that in a house, men might be the roof still, but women are the columns that buttress it.