By Brett Davis

Vietnam has seen a steady increase in recent years of women executives in the top echelons of business. While it is not always an easy road, inclusiveness at the C-Suite level brings a diversity of approaches and thinking that helps companies grow. [C] Vietnam spoke to several women leaders to get their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for female business leaders.

Numerous Vietnamese businesswomen have risen to prominence in recent years, helming high-profile organizations such as Vietjet, Unilever Vietnam, Vinamilk and most recently IBM Vietnam.

Across the board, the country performs well against global averages for female representation in senior management positions. According to the Grant Thornton International Business Report, a third of senior management positions in mid-market companies in Vietnam are held by women compared to 29% globally, while 95% of local businesses have at least one woman in senior management against a global average of 85%.

While these numbers show healthy growth in representation of female executives in Vietnam, it was not always the case. CBRE Vietnam Managing Director Dang Phuong Hang said when she started in the real estate industry in the mid-1990s there were very few women business leaders. Although she acknowledges it has improved in recent years, she said reaching the top needed both dedication and making sometimes difficult choices.

“Moving up the corporate ladder requires female leaders to commit a lot of time and effort, and sometimes we have to sacrifice time with family and friends to focus on work,” she said. “I think businesswomen in Asia are very smart, very dedicated and committed to their job. But in Vietnam, or Asia in general, women always have to work harder to get the same opportunities men do, that’s why mentally we have to be strong and determined to have success and receive recognition from others.”

There have been numerous studies linking an increased proportion of female business leadership within companies to greater profitability and market share. It also simply better reflects the marketplace and consumer perspectives. However, in Vietnam at least, cultural expectations of the traditional role of women can hinder their professional advancement.

Publicis Groupe Chairperson Hoang Thi Mai Huong has had a decades-long career in advertising and was a pioneer in the field in Vietnam. She said she believes certain professions or roles are more advantageous for women to advance in. She pointed to her own industry, where women are predominant in account management but there are more males in creative or planning positions.

“Men and women are different, not better or worse, so there are fields where men will be better and fields where women will be better,” she said. “Equality doesn’t mean everybody is the same.”

Huong said she sees women leaders as being more persuasive communicators who like to build consensus, have more patience, and are pragmatic problem solvers. However, she also believes men in Vietnam are naturally more able to create networks with other men that help advance their careers.

“When they like each other they bond very strongly, it creates a boy’s club where they support each other and I wish we had more of that bonding among women,” she said. “Sometimes we have, but I don’t see that too much, especially with women closer to the top. There are a lot of women’s groups, yes, but we don’t have that instinct to stick together.”

The other strong cultural force is the central role of women in the family, to marry and raise children. “Maybe historically, culturally in Vietnam men go out, while women are staying home because we each have our own household and we have to protect that,” Huong said.

“What holds women back in Vietnam is the perception that family is your responsibility,” she said. “When that perception changes it will be better, but companies also need to contribute to that by supporting women not just with education and training, but also with family.”

Yet, Huong said she also sees this attitude changing with Vietnam’s younger generations as more opportunities to study abroad open up and the culture, in general, becomes more westernized.

Part of that new generation is Thai Pham Kha Ly, the CEO of fashion retailer Gumac who was recruited to her position last year while still in her late 30s. She said she certainly felt the pressure to deliver in her new role, get across the intricacies of the fashion world and consolidate key relationships. The latter was an added challenge given all of her C-level colleagues were male and older than her.

“They are all great people to work with, but at the very beginning with some important decisions, I felt they had some hesitation,” she said. “After a couple of months working with me though, and when I shared my strategy and the vision and mission I had for the company, I felt I earned their respect.”

Ly said she thinks female leaders have an advantage in terms of an inherent softness or empathy. “I believe managing people is the most important thing, and people are always influenced by emotion,” she said. “If we have that empathy inside ourselves as women, we can take advantage of that.”

Access to opportunities to increase their knowledge and education has also enhanced women’s ability to ascend the ranks in business, she said, and this was backed up in the Grant Thornton survey where 56% of Vietnamese companies ensure equal access to developmental opportunities and enabling flexible working, far outperforming the global average of 34% and 31% respectively. [C]

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