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In Vietnam, Women Push Back on Work Culture Created by Men

Be assertive. Speak out. Lean in.

The world of work continues to tell women what they have to do to succeed in a hyper competitive business environment.

But some are getting tired of being told how to fit in, and in Vietnam some are now pushing back against these demands. They say the status quo is a work culture created by men, one that forces women to assimilate. In place of this, women are asserting new skills — like listening, or taking care of the group — that they think don’t get enough attention from employers. 

“I want to become a leader like my mother, someone who both does well in my work, as well as takes care of my family, bringing up five children,” said Ha Thu Thanh, chairwoman of the accounting firm Deloitte Vietnam.

Male-dominant history

Forkast News founder Angie Lau said there are certain skills typically associated with women, but they should be encouraged in men, too. 

“The women here have the skills that are absolutely in demand for the economy that will be tomorrow — empathy, vulnerability, sensitivity, compassion, kindness, listening,” she said at a Forbes women’s conference in Ho Chi Minh City. “These are skills that we are not necessarily born with, but it’s actually encouraged and nurtured for women.”

Vulnerability and kindness are not obvious tools to get ahead in one’s career. But that could be an outdated product of history: Most office cultures were formed starting decades ago, at a time when women were shut out of many professions, leaving men to shape those cultures. Lau noted both women and men have been socialized to believe they naturally have different traits, that one gender is more authoritative, or that another is more emotional. So with men in charge for so long, it’s no surprise that offices came to favor traits considered masculine, from beating out the competition, to boasting of one’s triumphs.

Modesty, collaboration 

But what if a company rewarded the modest, as well as the boastful? The competitive, as well as the collaborative?

Women are challenging old ideas of what it means to succeed professionally. Instead of just changing themselves to fit the work environment, they are changing the environment to include them, to value a broader set of skills.

​“Our goal is not to compare ourselves to men, our goal is not to be better or worse,” said Amanda Rasmussen, chief operating officer of ITL Corp, a logistics firm in Vietnam. “Use the things that make you unique, whether it’s being collaborative or empathetic or the ability to be real or the ability to care for those around you.”

Men’s responsibility

Advice like “lean in” or “be assertive” puts the responsibility on women to adapt to the way things already are. But Lau and others say men need to do their part, too. Murray Edwards College surveyed hundreds of women, who reported many similar challenges at work, from being interrupted at meetings, to being left out of business conducted over a round of golf. While women should speak up, men also should notice how they’re ignoring women in meetings and speak up for them, college president Barbara Stocking wrote in a Financial Times op-ed.

Vietnam has its own version of mixing business and golf. Business partners commonly strike deals at bars filled with paid escorts. To bond, colleagues “nhau” or go out for street beers. Both are activities that specifically exclude women.

“Women have to overcome more difficulties than men to become good leaders,” said Nguyen Thi Mai Thanh, president of electrical firm REE Corp. She cited the example of family limitations, not just needing to raise children, but being limited professionally if one’s husband or other family oppose “the career woman.” 

Teaching boys 

If power dynamics are changing, then globally this extends beyond business. In the U.S. some wonder if “win at all cost” competitiveness has made politicians polarizing and unwilling to compromise. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern champions a politics of compassion, to replace cutthroat politics. 

To return to a more inclusive environment, think of what the next generation is learning, Lau said. What she’s teaching her son goes beyond old-fashioned gender paradigms. 

“I, as a mother, must empower him,” she said, “make him understand the power of compassion, empathy, authenticity, vulnerability. These are the skills of the 21st century.”

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