Gender Equality and Prevailing Challenges in the Workplace in Vietnam

Posted by Written by Thu Nguyen Reading Time: 4 minutes

Vietnam, as an emerging manufacturing hub, is one of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia, with a great emphasis on sustainable development, among which is gender equality and woman 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

In 2021, Vietnam’s population exceeded 98.5 million people with more than half of the population females. Vietnam has about 26 million female workers, equivalent to 47.3 percent of the total employees.

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

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

It can be seen that 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 the majority of unpaid family workers, especially in rural areas, underdeveloped economic areas, remote areas, and ethnic minority areas, who are disadvantaged regarding access to social protection services as well as vulnerable income.

The double burden that has challenged woman’s entrepreneurship

In the SME and MSME context, women-owned enterprises in Vietnam are growing rapidly. However, their ventures tend to be informal, small, and concentrated in low-productivity sectors, which put them at greater risk in times of economic crisis.

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

The major challenges that face female workers invariably range from 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.

As per 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 care, and childcare, among others.

Stereotypes profoundly affect women’s economic participation, including barriers to leadership and promotion based on the perceived primacy of their caregiver role which fuels prejudice about women’s capabilities and knowledge. 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 difference in access to education and training in general and trained labor in particular. 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 percent in 2019), and there is a clear difference between men and women.

For women, one out of every four male workers who have a job has been trained (the rate is 25 percent), and for women, only one out of every five workers who have a job has been trained (the rate is 20 percent).

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 to this, the presence of females in the workforce has increased steadily every year since Vietnam’s Đổi Mới reforms in 1986 when the country started economic renewal, pushing 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 ensuring gender equality. This laid the foundation for the more recent National Strategy on Gender Equality for the 2021-2030 period.

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

The Labour Code 2019 introduced several significant reforms favorable to equality at work. 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 a more female-friendly 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, especially on building digital literacy skills which female personnel usually find limited access to.

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 woman’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.

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