It comes as no surprise that women in Vietnam make up a large part of the Vietnamese workforce. From the corner pho seller to the incredibly strong construction worker, women are part of every industry here. In fact, about 72 percent of women are part of the labour force, higher than in most of the world, according to the UN’s International Labour Organisation. 

Despite the ubiquity of women, and men’s willingness to accept them in Vietnam’s workforce, there are still huge barriers. In 2012-13, for instance, Vietnam was one of the few countries in the world where the gender pay gap actually widened. Now, women make on average from 20 to 30 percent less than their male counterparts, a 2 percent change from the previous year, according to an annual ILO report.

Even with these obstacles, women in Vietnam are staying strong and continue to hold and succeed in important jobs. AsiaLIFE speaks to some of these women, in professions traditionally dominated by men. They are a diverse representation of working women as a whole, who will continue to shape the culture, economy and future of the country.

Women in the Vietnamese workforce It comes as no surprise that women in Vietnam make up a large part of the Vietnamese workforceMartial Artist

Trinh Thi Thien has always been a fighter. After her parents’ messy divorce, her father was left to care for Thien and her four siblings in a small village in central Quang Ngai province. Unable to land steady work, her father soon found it difficult to afford even food.

In desperation, Thien’s father packed up his children and headed to Saigon. It was here that Thien met Ho Hoa Hue, an internationally renowned Viet Vo Dau, or Vovinam, master and instructor.

Hue saw promise in the young Thien and decided to take her in and train her. At just five years old, Thien went to live with Hue, and began a grueling training regimen. She trained three times a day over the next three years, and began to show natural talent. Then others started to take notice.

When Thien was eight, the Vietnamese army recruited her into the army martial arts team. Over the next 20 years, Thien would compete internationally, representing the Vietnamese army.

Although Vietnam has a long history of female warriors, from the Trung sisters to the soldiers fighting the French and Americans, martial arts here is still widely thought of as a men’s sport, Thien says. But during her time with the army, Thien trained, lived and competed with both boys and girls and never felt like she was at a disadvantage simply because she was female.

“I always thought, what boys can do so can I,” she says.

And she was right. Over the years, she won countless competitions, receiving both money and gold medals. She often competed with boys as well, usually in choreographed routines. While she may not have actually been fighting with men or boys, her skill was impressive nonetheless. She even broke her collarbone in a competition and was told she’d have to sit out for a month. But just two weeks later, she was back at it.

“I hope my story can show young girls that they can be stronger, independent and still be beautiful,” she says.

But two years ago, Thien, now 30, decided she wanted to follow her dream of opening a fashion shop and left the army. Now she runs a small fashion boutique called Xich Lo (60 Nguyen Van Lac, Binh Thanh District) and also helps her former master train both Vietnamese and westerners from all over the world.

Despite her move toward something many think of as a more typical women’s job, Thien says martial arts still defines everything she does.

“I’m the same as every girl,” she said. “I want a family, husband, money for life. But I’m different because I have something inside me. When you know martial arts, you have something special, different inside of you. And I think people can see that.”

by Chris Mueller

Women in the Vietnamese workforce It comes as no surprise that women in Vietnam make up a large part of the Vietnamese workforceJournalist

Khuu My Phung used to consider herself a shy person; then she became a journalist.

The job boosted her confidence, in large part because of all the interaction it required on a regular basis. Before press conferences, Phung would make sure she was prepared, knowing what information she wanted to get out of the event.

“I like to be the first to ask a question,” says Phung, who covers foreign trade and investment for Vietnam Economic News, which is published by the Ministry of Industry and Trade. “I want to be the first to know.”

Her competitiveness and curiosity are hallmarks of journalism. But the profession historically and disproportionately attracted men, both in Vietnam and around the world. The gap has narrowed in recent decades, though men still fill most editorial and administrative leadership posts.

Phung works at Hanoi-based Vietnam Economic News’ local office on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, where the ratio of men to women is two to one. She said gender discrimination isn’t a problem, but she often loses female colleagues who quit after getting married.

“Men continue to develop, grow in their careers after they get married,” she says.

Women, on the other hand, feel obligated to focus on child-rearing and home-making. With children, it’s also hard to keep the unpredictable schedule of a journalist, who often attends events at night or conducts after-hour interviews when sources are available.

Journalism can be a grueling, itinerant existence, and Phung doesn’t think she’s as rugged or “dynamic” as her male coworkers, who travel more.

But her gender does come with advantages. Women are naturally more nurturing, and Phung says that helps her empathise with people she’s interviewing or put them at ease.

“I think I can communicate with people easily,” she says. “I’m open to listen, so they want to share with me. They feel comfortable talking to me.”

By contrast, “Sometimes men look serious,” Phung says, laughing. “They’re more aggressive. They want to show they can do many difficult things, that they’re strong.”

The press in Vietnam faces challenges known to news outlets all over the world, namely, the struggle to find a profitable business model as readers move online and away from paid, print subscriptions. But other issues are more pronounced here. The fetters on the industry push reporters into yellow journalism.

But Phung also says the public generally respects journalism; on the national day for journalists every June, newsrooms fill with flowers from well-wishers. More substantively, reporters themselves are evolving professionally.

“They are developing, getting information well, quickly, and translating information from the world,” Phung says. “For example, if something happens in the US, one hour later we can have it in Vietnamese.”

by Lien Hoang

Women in the Vietnamese workforce It comes as no surprise that women in Vietnam make up a large part of the Vietnamese workforceIT Manager

Kim Mai Bui showed up to an interview with AsiaLIFE wearing a smart blue dress, thick eyeliner and a heavy necklace. That matters, because Bui hates the stereotype that women who go into science and technology fields are nerds with glasses.

“They’re very girly, very stylish, even though they’re very technical,” she says.

Bui runs a team of game developers and graphic designers working on a project for tiNiPlanet, which bills itself as a safe playground for children online. In the world of gaming and coding, her fashion sense and girl-next-door looks might seem out of place. “Most people don’t think I was ever technical when they first meet me,” she says.

But technical she is. Bui studied information technology and software engineering in university, surrounded 90 percent of the time by males. That turned out to be an asset — as a rare coed, she stood out to the professors and recruiters.

She then joined Fujitsu, the IT company, where she worked as a software and web developer, as well as a business analyst. Bui was in the minority again, but gender wasn’t a concern.

“People seem to feel not many women go into IT because it’s not welcoming or hostile,” she says. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Men have driven the global explosion of tech companies in the last two decades, but there are more female role models than ever. Marissa Mayer is president and CEO of Yahoo, Sheryl Sandberg is one of the public faces of Facebook after she left Google, and Melinda Gates was developing software at Microsoft before she married the richest man on the planet.

That’s good but not great. Bui says she wants to see more women in the computer and other tech industries, which she promotes through support networks like Girl Geeks and IT lunches. Women are already more exposed to this world than before because of consumer products like smartphones. Such products used to be more about pragmatism, but after Steve Jobs helped to marry form with function, women’s aesthetic sensibilities could benefit tech devices.

“These days it’s very competitive, people want a beautiful user experience,” Bui says.

Women also tend to be patient and care about the details, which comes in handy. “As a coder, you can’t leave the computer until the problem is solved, and you don’t know how long it’ll be until the problem is solved,” Bui says. “Coding for 10 hours is not really an exaggeration.”

by Lien Hoang

Le Thi Thanh TramCivil Engineer

Shortly after graduating from the Ho Chi Minh University of Technology in 2010, Le Thi Thanh Tram, 27, was designing two complex basements for the Lim Tower, the stark 34-level office building at the conjunction of Ton Duc Thang and Le Thanh Ton in District 1.

“Most of the projects I design are basements,” says Tram, a civil engineer for Phu My Designing Consulting (PMDC) in Tan Binh District. “I liked the Lim Tower because there were many problems to solve. It was the first project I designed to be constructed.”

Tram works in an office with 20 other civil engineers and graphers to realise various apartment buildings and high-rise developments contracted throughout the city. Architecture firms hired by real estate investors consult PMDC to help blueprint structural designs.

Her position requires a considerable amount of calculation and daunting levels of technical training. She taught herself computer programs that weren’t taught at her university, including Plaxis and ETABS, structural and geotechnical software that analyses and helps render 2D and 3D civil structures.

“When we have a fixed schedule with a big project, but a short time to work, there is very much pressure,” she says. “We must work overtime Saturday and Sunday. We spend a lot of time reading books because we must follow strict civil engineering standards.”

Tram admits most women aren’t innately attracted to civil engineering as a career here, since it can be demanding and stressful. She works with five other women at PMDC and her friends tell her as few as three women are now pursuing civil engineering at her alma mater.

But she followed in the path of her older brother, who is the deputy director of Construction Corporation No 1, the company responsible for some of the city’s most prominent civil, industrial, and infrastructure works over the last 30 years, including the Thu Thiem Bridge.

Tram found high-rise buildings the most interesting, taking on more challenging assignments since her first foray into designing building elements, for Hoa Sen Apartment near Dam Sen Waterpark in District 11.

Because high-rise buildings require substantial investment and money, Tram says there haven’t been as many projects so far this year at PMDC. In the meantime, she wants to make sure she’s ready.

“In the future, more and more high-rise buildings will be built in the city, so we need more civil engineers to have the skills to design or to construct it,” Tram says. “I must be prepared to improve my knowledge.”

by Ruben Luong

Phan Thi Nhi HieuEconomist

Read any news story about the Vietnamese economy, and you might think all economists are men, with perhaps the exception of the World Bank’s Victoria Kwakwa. Of course, it’s not just Vietnam. The Nobel Prize in economics has never gone to a woman, including last year’s three-way tie among three men. If you can name any economist at all, it’s probably the likes of John Maynard Keynes, Paul Krugman or Jeffrey Sachs.

So in the preparation for this month’s cover story, the last subject we found was Phan Thi Nhi Hieu, a lecturer in the faculty of economics and commerce at Hoa Sen University. That she is a rare female economist is somewhat surprising, given that she had plenty of young women in her classes when she majored in finance 30 years ago.

“It was a hot major at that time,” Hieu says. “When students tested for university, the best students went into finance.”

But the number of women dwindled as she went on to get her master’s and doctoral degrees in similar studies. Hieu wondered if men have had the structural fortune to rise up in economics fields. She says that in the United States, 70 percent of one’s success seems attributable to ability, the rest to luck. In Vietnam, it might be that chance, connections, or other factors beyond skill play a bigger role.

Women’s representation matters here because the economy is the top concern in Vietnam, for both those at the top and the public. The legitimacy of the ruling elite depends on their ability to lift GDP and credit growth, reform state-owned enterprises, and fix the banking sector. And yet so few women’s voices are heard in making decisions about the country’s future.

These are the topics Hieu brings into her classroom. She starts her day reading news on everything from securities to investment, and scans the exchanges like NASDAQ and the VN-Index. She chooses an issue, such as Vietnam’s bank restructuring process, and has her students summarise it, give their opinions, and analyse or explain what’s happening. To track all this she has a handful of devices out at any given time — a desktop computer, a laptop and a tablet.

Hieu says when it comes to economics, women bring a lot to the table, because they are careful and detail-oriented.

“When I came here, I was very happy because the students really like learning,” Hieu says. But that’s true of both sexes. “I don’t dare say girls or boys are better.”

by Lien Hoang