If a basic tenet of communism is equality, including based on gender, then from some points of view the Socialist Republic of Vietnam would seem to be faring well on its founding ideology.
Women are visible everywhere across the country of 100 million people, whether they are running iconic companies, government ministries, or single-parent households. Female Vietnamese also show up in jobs stereotypically associated with males, such as construction workers, taxi drivers, and police officers.
But when considering all of the data that indicate Vietnam is ahead of most other countries in gender equality - like the percentage of women who are in the labor force or who are chief executive officers - it is easy to overlook the fact that men still have an edge in so many areas.
The average income of women in the Southeast Asian country is $224 (5.2 million Vietnam dong) a month, according to figures released in March by Adecco Vietnam, a firm that sells staffing services. That pay level amounts to just 81% of the average income of men.
In addition to the wage gap, there is the matter of unpaid labor. Beyond the official work day, Vietnamese women spend another five hours daily on tasks like cleaning the house or looking after a sick relative.
“Every day has just 24 hours, to be divided among work, family, and oneself,” said Nguyen Hong Phuong, the director of finance at Adecco Vietnam. “It will not always be divided evenly, but balance and prioritizing will always be the key.”
While men are starting to pick up the slack, they still enjoy pride of place in the household. For a man, the advantage begins even before birth, when parents prefer to bear a boy rather than a girl, through a childhood without the expectation he will help with domestic chores, until adulthood, when the man switches from having his mother care for him to having his wife take on the burden.
The rate of men who have indefinite term work contracts with foreign invested companies is 73.9%, compared with 67.7% for women, according to Adecco Vietnam. It also said that in job interviews, employers tend to ask female candidates not about their work experience or their professional goals, but about their marriage and family plans, as it would cost money for them to hire someone who eventually gets pregnant and goes on leave.
In an indication of the responsibility that still falls on women in Vietnam, one of the key priorities for female employees when they are seeking out an employer is that the company has a suitable parental leave policy, according to a study released March 8 by the United States Agency for International Development. That is in contrast to the Philippines, where women who were polled said they want diversity in the workplace, and in contrast to Singapore, where women said they want flexible work arrangements, like working from home. The research was conducted jointly by USAID Green Invest Asia and Moxie Future, which both advocate sustainable development.
As in so many countries, women in Vietnam bear the brunt of poverty and the repercussions of natural disasters. That is why there are programs like Technologies for Equality, a competition overseen by the Women’s Initiative for Startups and Entrepreneurship.
Contestants submit inventions that can improve the lives of women in the countryside for a chance to win up to $7,000. So far there have been innovations like Safe Journey, a mobile app that helps migrant workers find jobs and housing, since many rural women move to urban areas to find employment and send money back to their hometowns.
Another is a facility where ethnic minority tea farmers can process their crops for higher value-added products. Ireland and Australia, which are funding the project, will announce the winners later this month.
“This aims to unearth and support innovative solutions to ensure rural women and girls can fully participate and prosper in the workforce and the economy,” Vice Minister Bui The Duy at the Ministry of Science and Technology of Vietnam said at the event launching the competition.
There is plenty that is going right in Vietnam. With its 71% female workforce participation, and the 25% of CEOs who are women, Vietnam probably has some insight for the rest of the world on equality. Local women generally have maternity leave, workplace protections relating to pregnancy and childcare, low rates of sex based violence, and overall freedom and respect in society.
At the same time, some of Vietnam’s metrics look good because other countries’ do not. Even in a socialist society there is still a ways to go for complete gender equality.