And many experts believe businesses with a gender-friendly corporate policy is the way forward for enterprises in Vietnam.
Maxport Limited Vietnam, which bought Factory Number 40 in Hanoi in 2006 producing top brands including Nike, Lululemon, Kathmandu and Spyder, had sought support from International Finance Corporation (IFC)’s gender advisory team to build a women-friendly working environment.
The company, which has three other factories in Vietnam, has ambitious plans to increase its workforce and expand its global market access. CEO and founder of the company Nicholas Stokes believes the satisfaction of Maxport’s 6,000 employees – 85 per cent of whom are women – is crucial.
“It’s a whole bunch of young women sitting at a sewing machine for eight or nine hours a day, doing repetitive work. There’s got to be more to life than that,” Stokes said.
His efforts have paid off when female workers seem to be happy with changes in company policies.
Nguyen Thi Thu Huyen, 47, moved from sewing machine operator to manager of the Hanoi factory.
She remembers long days from seven in the morning till 10 at night back in 1992 under previous owners, but now enjoys far more manageable hours.
“If we ever have to do any overtime, it is well-planned in advance, giving us time to take care of the family. So, we have a sense of being able to manage our lives,” Huyền said.
Maxport may have made a wise decision in terms of economic benefits as it helps the company not only retain good employees but also makes it stand out as an employer of choice in a tightening labour market with manufacturing on the rise.
Vietnam is the third largest garment exporter in the world. Vietnamese garment factories exported US$39 billion worth of products in 2019 providing jobs for more than 2.5 million workers, mostly women.
High on agenda
Gender equality is on high agenda both globally and in Vietnam.
Women for a long time were labelled as the main person responsible for taking care of children and family while men go out to earn money. While men are deemed to be better leaders, female workers are thought to only hold supportive position instead of leading.
These prejudices have been changing in recent times but still exist, especially for women. This has seen the amount of women holding managerial positions increasing but still low compared to the increase in the female workforce.
A high proportion of women are working in simple manual labour jobs.
“Awareness on gender issues, especially gender equality in the workplace in Việt Nam is not high,” Le Thanh Hang, executive director of the Vietnam Business Coalition for Women’s Empowerment (VBCWE) told Vietnam News.
Hang said gender equality means ensuring equal opportunities for men and women, not necessarily having an absolutely balanced workforce or only women-preferred policies.
In some places, the issue of income disparity between men and women in the same job position is still evident.
"Opportunities for women to access high-income jobs is still lower than men, and women are also more vulnerable when businesses have needs to cut manpower," she pointed out.
She says gender-friendly corporate policies should be considered as a strategic goal of businesses as it brings many benefits in terms of stronger brand image, increasing competitiveness in the market, and a gender-diverse leadership system often taking a more cautious approach which lowers risk and leads to sustainable development.
Vietnam has seen substantial improvements in gender equality in businesses in the past, especially in the private sector.
Eight Vietnamese companies have earned Economic Dividend for Gender Equality (EDGE) global certification – the leading global assessment and business certification for gender equality.
They include Ho Chi Minh City Power Corporation, Maritime Bank, Southern Airports Services JSC (SASCO), Deloitte Vietnam, Traphaco JSC, Saigon Food JSC, TNG Investment & Trading JSC and Maxport Limited Vietnam.
Tran Thi Kieu Oanh, human resources director of Saigon Food which employs 2,500 workers with female staff accounting for 54 per cent, said their gender-care policies helped it attract and retain talent and better promote competency of every employee.
“Although the company does not have gender discrimination in the policies and benefits for employees, it has yet to achieve expected gender balance in managerial positions,” Oanh said, adding that it is striving to improve this ratio in the future.
Vietnam is one of the countries with the highest female workforce in the world at about 48 per cent, according to the General Statistics Office.
The percentage of women-owned enterprises also increased from 4 percent in 2009 to 24 per cent in 2019, and the proportion of women holding leadership is relatively high (27.3 per cent) compared to the global average (18.2 percent), data of the VBCWE showed.
"One of the biggest challenges when implementing gender issues in businesses is thinking of leaders. Some business owners in Vietnam have started to pay attention to gender equality in the workplace but mainly in the number of male and female worker recruitment," Hang said.
Many gender factors are not considered in policy making and are not considered a priority issue when making development strategy decisions, she added.