Despite the structural and societal challenges, the entrepreneurial spirit of Vietnamese women remains undeterred.

A new report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed that Vietnam has consistently outperformed other ASEAN nations in its share of females at work. Just under half of all Vietnamese women are in full-time employment.

Vietnam will soon be caught by other nations

Unfortunately, Vietnam has been unable to make further advancements in recent years. Entrenched gender stereotypes are reinforced by regulation bias and societal norms. The men bring home the bacon, while women remain trapped in the lower ranks of the public and private sector, expected to shoulder the responsibility for the house and family.

There is a chicken and egg dilemma present in many developing ASEAN nations. To put more women into the workforce, there needs to be a coordinated governmental effort. Yet, with low numbers of women parliamentarians and female ministers in the region, there are not many stakeholders in government pushing for female empowerment. Traditional gender prejudices prevent Vietnamese women from climbing the political ladder and enact forward-looking labour policies.

In the corporate world, more is needed to put women in top positions in firms. Although Vietnam’s labour law prohibits recruitment advertisements with phrases such as “male candidates preferred”, there is little enforcement or punishments for companies who adopt unfair hiring practices.

Economies pay a price for excluding women from the workforce

Barriers to female employment represent wasted opportunities for the country’s development and economic growth. Female workers can play a critical role in ASEAN’s economies. By reallocating or reducing a woman’s time in unpaid care work, she will have more opportunities to hone her skills and contribute more towards the national gross domestic product (GDP).

McKinsey, a consultancy firm, estimates ASEAN member states (excluding Brunei and Cambodia) stand to gain a total of US$381 billion by 2025 from boosting female employment.

The entrepreneurial spirit in Vietnamese women is behind Vietnam’s success

Even with deeply rooted societal expectations of women as homemakers, unequal equal access to education, workplace bias, Vietnam has the highest share of working females in ASEAN. This can, in part, be attributed to the enterprising spirit of Vietnamese ladies.

Women are opening more businesses. The ratio of female to male new business owners is 1.14 to 1. Even with a child, entrepreneurial mothers are working flexible hours and juggling work commitments with household expectations.

As an interim strategy towards boosting gender equality, the government could provide more support to local female entrepreneurs and help them scale or enhance their businesses. In 2016, the Mekong Business Initiative, in conjunction with the Australian government, produced a situation analysis of female-owned small and medium enterprises in Vietnam. The report identified a lack of financial knowledge, limited access to credit, fewer opportunities to participate in government-run trade promotions, and reduced networking opportunities as major barrios to female business owners. It made a series of policy recommendations to the Vietnamese government to assist female business owners, including the introduction of training schemes, improved access to borrowing, as well as building female business owner networks, and educating young girls about finance, human resources, and management.

However, there has been limited implementation and a limited increase in governmental support.

The next generation may be more inclusive. Vietnamese mothers are determined to educate their children on the importance of gender equality. Forkast News founder Angie Lau has been teaching her son lessons that go beyond old-fashioned gender paradigms. With the right messages, the next generation could go on to break traditional gender stereotypes and expand the role of women in the workforce.

In the meantime, the government should be taking steps to foster entrepreneurial spirit among Vietnamese women. Gender equality is more than a pipe dream, it is a social responsibility, and a good investment decision. If the Vietnamese government can’t be enticed by the social benefits for gender equality, maybe the economic benefits will push it into action.

By Joelyn Chan - ASEAN Today - October 7, 2019