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Women breaking through in digital

Released at: 09:59, 08/03/2019

Women breaking through in digital

Photo: Viet Tuan

Businesswomen play an increasingly key role in Vietnam's digital economic development though gender inequality persists.

by Hong Nhung

Anyone looking at the Top 500 fastest-growing enterprises in Vietnam last year would be impressed by the significant contribution of the country’s businesswomen, though their numbers remain limited. The more challenges women face, however, the more confidence and motivation they acquire to be successful, and 2018 was the most successful year ever for women leaders in Vietnam.  

Huge role to play

Women have an incredibly important role in Vietnam’s digital economic development, just as they’ve played a fundamental role in the broader Vietnamese economy. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) account for roughly 98 per cent of all businesses in the country and a large number of these are run and staffed by women. According to research from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), 21 per cent of all enterprises in Vietnam are owned by women. While the country isn’t necessarily leading the world on this front, such figures are incredibly positive.

There’s clearly a joint effort being made when it comes to evolving the economy, between banks, financial technology (fintech) companies, the government, businesses, and other stakeholders, according to Ms. Dang Tuyet Dung, Vietnam & Laos Country Manager at Visa. “Female business leaders, whether heading up small local businesses or major companies, should be proactive about looking at how they can help their business to better compete through digital means,” she said. “By strengthening their own businesses to become more competitive, they will naturally drive the economy forward, as businesses of all stripes seek to offer greater convenience to customers and a more seamless shopping experience,” she said.

According to a study by the Navigos Group on women’s role in the sustainable development of businesses, 40 per cent of respondents said their companies have at least 30 per cent of managers and leaders being women. Female leaders take on many important positions, such as CEO, HR Director, Finance Director, and Managing Director. Businesswomen are clearly contributing significantly to the sustainable development of businesses with their management skills. 

In the context of ongoing economic integration, women entrepreneurs are no longer a new concept in Vietnam but their representation in management roles is still limited. According to the latest figures from the General Statistics Office, female workers account for 48.1 per cent of the total workforce in the country and 52.1 per cent of unskilled workers, while only accounting for 26.1 per cent of leadership positions. “Nevertheless, I believe that this number will increase faster and become more significant in the future when Industry 4.0 booms and with startups by young people growing, in which the development of female entrepreneurs has major potential,” said Ms. Ha Thu Thanh, Chairwoman of Deloitte Vietnam and the Vietnam Business Coalition for Women’s Empowerment (VBCWE). 

In the Industry 4.0 era, she noted, the “workforce” includes not only people but also other forces such as artificial intelligence (AI). People need to rely much more on soft skills to enhance interaction with each other. Therefore, it is time for women to rely on their latent power and build upon characteristics such as meticulousness, ingenuity, sophistication, and carefulness, as the inherent characteristic of physical strength, which is an advantage of men, is no longer important. Women have numerous opportunities to access the multi-disciplinary, multi-dimensional, and multi-cultural education system, which provide great advantages in career advancement.

Key to success

Vietnamese women have shared advantages with men from a stable political and social environment, according to Ms. Nguyen Phuong Mai, Managing Director of Navigos Search. “Vietnam has achieved high wage parity and high labor market participation parity among all income groups,” she said. “This indicates that it has appropriate policies to develop women in the process of sustainable development.”

Respondents to the Navigos Group’s study shared a range of opinions on the strengths of female leaders, with 43 per cent citing “strategy execution” as a positive and 37 per cent both “problem solving” and “decision making”. Notably, female leaders are also considered to possess good “change management” skills, according to 35 per cent of respondents, which are essential in a digital age where change occurs every day. Such strengths among Vietnamese women can greatly benefit businesses.

To be able to become a successful entrepreneur, Ms. Thanh said, a woman must lead herself before leading anyone else. In order to achieve success and reach a higher position, women need to have confidence in their ability to do things as well as or better than men and work through any prejudice. One indispensable trait is a passion for creating energy and meaning in day-to-day tasks and working towards today being better than yesterday and tomorrow even better. This is the essence of continuous improvement, she believes. Women entrepreneurs need to prepare themselves and their businesses with a strong desire for successful and sustainable integration. 

She also recommended that women doing business amid Industry 4.0 need to balance their time, emotions, and goals as well as enhance their communication and interaction skills to balance work and family, including interacting with colleagues and family and staying updated. Associations and organizations promoting workplace gender equality and women’s economic empowerment such as the VBCWE and others specifically for female entrepreneurs host a raft of activities that young women entrepreneurs can join to improve their thinking and learn from the management experience of senior leaders and explore new directions for themselves. Many major corporations like Deloitte have implemented programs to develop female leadership teams strategically, and all enterprises should adopt strategies to develop women leadership for sustainable development and equality.

Ms. Dung from Visa believes the basic skills that are fundamental for women leaders amid Industry 4.0 include knowledge of cloud technology, big data, IoT, blockchain, and techniques in coding and cyber security. “One of the most broadly applicable fields that women entrepreneurs can look to is e-commerce, as it can help them achieve faster and more efficient sales acquisitions, provide a better customer experience, and optimize operational costs,” she said. “Many businesses nowadays have e-commerce and digital elements to them, so even if you’re not running your own business, knowledge in this area is incredibly valuable.”

Female workforce participation rate, by country

Source: World Bank, 2018

Women’s contribution to GDP, by country

Source: McKinsey Global Institute, 2018

Up for the challenge

Despite possessing their own advantages, female leaders also face different challenges when participating in the digital economy. Among them is the “glass ceiling” they may encounter when they are unfairly compared to male leaders, and a lack of support and understanding from family. Moreover, a number of other challenges have emerged from the business side: a lack of empowerment, a lack of promotion opportunities, and a lack of mentors/advisors.

No country in the world has achieved absolute gender equality at work, especially in Asia, Ms. Thanh from Deloitte said. According to the Attitudes, Practice, and Social Norms survey conducted in 2018 by the Australian Government’s Investing in Women project, Vietnamese women reported their primary reason for working is economic independence and they also have the same ambition to achieve senior management roles as men (84 per cent). However, the proportion of women holding managerial and leadership positions in enterprises in Vietnam is currently just 26.1 per cent. 

She added that gender inequality is a huge barrier to the development of female leadership. They are quite limited in terms of working age compared to men and market priority is also lower. Gender equality is an important goal not only for Vietnam but also for all countries around the world, and is one criterion in assessing the development of a society and the sustainability of an economy. Globally, there is growing evidence that improving gender equality in the workplace contributes significantly to economic growth, productivity, and job satisfaction. In recent years, Vietnamese enterprises have been increasingly concerned about and invested more in gender equality in the workplace. For young female entrepreneurs, gender equality would allow them to freely develop their own direction and achieve success in leadership roles.

In order to promote women’s leadership and entrepreneurship in Vietnam, according to Ms. Mai from Navigos Search, Vietnam needs to start with education, especially with junior education on gender equality and the importance of “everyone having the same opportunity”. “The government also needs to ensure gender equality in the process of economic and social development through gender equality policies, the promotion of the power of the Women’s Union at all levels, and an increase women’s representation in the population,” she said.

Corporations also have a major role to play in being able to truly empower women and support them in their careers by committing to gender diversity strategies, adopting policies to support women in areas such as healthcare and work-life balance, taking advantage of technology to apply flexible work practices, develop training or mentorship programs for women, and ensure equal assessment and development for both genders, Ms. Mai added.

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