February 2023

Gender Equality, Prevailing Challenges in the Vietnam Workplace

By Dezan Shira & Associates

Vietnam is an emerging manufacturing hub and one of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia. The country's leadership strongly emphasizes sustainable development, which includes gender equality and women entrepreneurship. Nonetheless, despite progress in narrowing the gender gap recently, Vietnam still faces challenges considering deep-rooted gender stereotypes and a “gendered structure” economy.

Female Participation in the Workforce

Vietnam’s population exceeded 98.5 million people in 2021, with women making up more than half of the population. Vietnam has about 26 million female workers, equivalent to 47.3% of the total employees.

The country is also among the world’s top 15 nations with the highest rate of working females. It is estimated that eight out of 10 working women are in the 15-64 age group.

Within the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector in Vietnam, it is estimated that women-owned SMEs comprise 21% of formal enterprises. Data also highlights that women-owned businesses in Vietnam generally have similar average annual revenues compared to their male counterparts.

The unemployment rate in Vietnam is relatively low. Nevertheless, the high labor force participation rate and the low unemployment rate cover the inequality in access to employment for women.

Indeed, the employment status data shows that women make up most unpaid family workers in Vietnam. This is especially true in rural areas, underdeveloped economic areas, remote areas, and ethnic minority areas. Women who fall into this category are considered disadvantaged with little access to social protection services.


Double Burden Challenging Women-Owned Enterprises

In the SME and micro, small, and medium (MSME) business context, women-owned enterprises in Vietnam are growing rapidly. However, their ventures tend to be informal, small, and concentrated in low-productivity sectors. This puts female entrepreneurs at a greater risk in times of economic crisis.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, female-owned businesses were 7% more likely to collapse when compared with male-owned businesses in Asia and Oceania.

Female workers face numerous major challenges which include small networks, limited access to technology, and reduced time for education and career advancement due to higher work-family conflict. In Vietnam, women, at the same time, also suffer from limited access to land and credit.

According to the General Statistics Office (GSO), considering the two groups of vulnerable jobs separately—self-employed and family workers—the self-employment work of men and women in Vietnam is equivalent. However, women are more than twice as likely to become domestic workers than men.

Women in Vietnam on average spend twice as many hours as men carrying out unpaid domestic and care work. This includes cleaning, washing clothes, cooking and shopping, family and childcare, and other duties.

Stereotypes profoundly affect women’s economic participation, creating barriers to leadership and promotion based on the perceived primacy of their caregiver role. These stereotypes fuels prejudice about the capabilities and knowledge of working women. In Vietnam, there is a pervasive notion of women being the secondary earner while men are considered the breadwinners.

Gender inequality is also reflected in the lack of access to education and training in general for woman to become trained in the labor force. The labor force is abundant, and the labor force participation rate is high, but just over one-fifth of the employed workers have received training (22.6% in 2019), and there is a clear difference between men and women.

For instance, one in four male workers—or 25%—who have a job has been trained, while only one out of every five—or 20%—of woman workers who have a job has been trained.


Government Policy Towards Gender Inequality

Overall, Vietnam’s investment climate for women is generally supportive as the government has enacted various measures to help women in business.

In addition, the presence of females in the workforce has increased steadily every year since Vietnam’s Đổi Mới reforms in 1986. This is after the country’s economic renewal, which encouraged economic growth and creating growth in labor demand. This contributed to the expansion of manufacturing and service industries, creating more job opportunities for both men and women.

In 2010, Vietnam approved the National Strategy on Gender Equality for 2011-2020 with a focus on gender equality. This laid the foundation for the more recent National Strategy on Gender Equality 2021-2023.

The strategy identifies several major goals, which have brought about several improvements in further strengthening women’s participation in leadership. These goals include the following:

  • The rate of female directors or owners of businesses is expected to reach at least 27% by 2025 and 30% by 2030
  • The average time women spend doing unpaid housework will be reduced by 1.7 times by 2025 and 1.4 times by 2030 compared to that of men
  • By 2025, 80% of women suffering from domestic and gender-based violence will be given access to at least one of the basic support services, and 90% by 2030
  • The sex ratio at birth will be 111 boys per 100 girls by 2025 and 109 boys per 100 girls by 2030. The maternal mortality rate will drop to 42 per 100,000 live births by 2025 and below 42 per 100,000 live births by 2030.
  • Gender and gender equality will be integrated into the curriculums at schools and pedagogical universities from 2025

Meanwhile, the Labour Code 2019 introduced several significant reforms favorable to work equality. These included a reduction in the retirement age gap between men and women from five to two years.

Preferential tax incentives were legislated for enterprises with a largely female workforce and access to credit was prioritized for rural women to encourage them to expand agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors.

However, limitations in government incentives and policies toward the protection and empowerment of women workers are still there. While Vietnam has a Labor Code with four articles relating to sexual harassment, it falls short of fully protecting women. A subsequent Code of Conduct on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace was developed in 2015, but it is voluntary and often not implemented.


How Business Can Work Toward Female-Focused Economy

Businesses can first put more focus on promoting business, networking, and training opportunities for women with flexibility regarding the time and contexts in which women may be more likely to attend, such as during work hours and lunchtime, requiring little to no travel, and not involving social drinking pressures.

SMEs and MSMEs can also focus on training opportunities that concentrate on building technical sector-specific knowledge for female personnel, particularly in building digital literacy skills.

Vietnam is among the countries that boasts the longest maternity leave. However, enterprises could also add more explicit childcare support as a gender-inclusive policy.

The SME and MSME sector over the years has successfully promoted women’s leadership and entrepreneurship by increasing the number of female entrepreneurs. It is, therefore, important to also pay more attention to helping these women grow their businesses and move up into the upper levels, rather than being stuck at the base of the entrepreneur pyramid.

This article was originally published in Vietnam Briefing, which is produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm assists foreign investors throughout Asia from offices across the world, including in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, India, and Russia. Readers may write to [email protected] for more support.
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