CHALLENGE THE NORM TO MOVE FORWARD
1. We can see the pandamic has put extra toll on working women. In your observation, how that extra toll have been handled by women around you, both at workplace and at home?
International reports – such as by Investing in Women – conclude that women have been more affected by the pandemic, as women are highly represented in industries affected by job losses and reduced working hours resulting from COVID-19: industries such as wholesale and retail trade, hospitality and some areas of manufacturing.
I’ve spoken to quite a few women in Vietnam who are working in the hospitality sector – one of those sectors disproportionately affected. All of these women seem to share a strong sense of responsibility for the welfare of their teams, and work really hard to either keep people on, and if they have to let them go, trying to figure out how best to support them.
They are also constantly thinking about how to pivot and/or reinvent their business to survive until business conditions improve. These women leaders have shown so much resilience. Many male business owners are doing the same, but female business owners or professionals are having to do this while juggling many additional responsibilities to the family or household; for example, dealing with school closures, home schooling, taking care of the household etc. Everything has been happening at the same time for them.
I have seen increased interest in my public SPARK! Women Leadership program at the end of last year, as women were seek to increase their resilience, focus on their vision, and connect to a new support network.
2. The mankind has been through multiple crisis. But in crisis we see exceptional examples of how women leadership has been effective handling them, for example New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Angela Merkel. What is your take on women leadership in crisis?
I think we are seeing different leadership traits from female leaders, which are better suited in times of crisis. First, clear, consistent communication, which has been shown as essential to unite a country, and to get people to agree to comply with government measures. Second, a sense of empathy and understanding of what people are going through. And thirdly, creating a sense of togetherness, and encouraging “team” approach. Compare for example the language of someone like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand – she talks about the “Team of 5 Million” New Zealanders working together to beat COVID – versus the language of war used in the early days of the pandemic by Boris Johnson.
HBR published an article in December 2020 citing research, which also concludes that women in the corporate world are better leaders during a crisis. This was based on engagement surveys of employees where women leaders were ranked consistently higher in areas that employees found important, such as interpersonal skills, collaboration, communication, willingness to innovate, willingness to support the team, empathy etc.
3. How the gender barrier has affected the career development of women in Vietnam in your opinion? What can policy makers, organizations can do to empower women to break the social norms and the glass ceiling?
I’ve had some fascinating discussions with Vietnamese business leaders in HCMC lately who point to the high participation of women in the workforce (79% vs 86% male participation rate), percentage of women on Boards, and some very high profile female Vietnamese business leaders to argue that there is ‘no problem with gender equality in Vietnam’.
This is exactly the problem! There is a lot to celebrate, and I do this a lot in my talks as well: Vietnam is doing well in many respects with women in the workforce - and that’s great - but that doesn’t mean that everything is fine. Successes to date are masking some of the underlying problems. For example, while there is higher workforce participation by women in Vietnam compared to other countries in the region, women also generally occupy lower roles for lower pay, compared to their male counterparts, or roles that typically don’t have a career path into senior management.
Second, social norms put more pressure on women to perform multiple roles next to their careers – this often leads to women ‘leaning out’ or not going for more senior roles because of those other pressures.
Thirdly from an organizational point of view, women still encounter barriers in recruitment – 83% of job ads explicitly look for male applicants for management job postings! So there’s recruitment bias, bias against women’s ability to lead – are they strong enough; bias against women who are mothers – can they be a mum and a senior executive at the same time?
Often a lack of flexibility in work arrangements means women can’t access the same level of training or can’t ‘get ahead’ by putting in all those extra hours at work because of family obligations. The reality is that many organisations may not even know why they are losing their female talent or employees. (In my industry we talk of a “leaky (talent) pipeline”).
So what are some of the solutions? Firstly, to recognise the value of female talent for organizations. Vietnam is currently leaving a lot on the table: the McKinsey Institute estimates that gender equality in the workforce would add US$40 billion to Vietnam’s GDP each year by 2025 – that’s a huge impact.
In practice, organisations and companies can re-assess how they provide more access to opportunities for women and encourage more women into leadership positions. Three other areas to focus on are: actively think about how you can best develop all of your workforce (both men and women); secondly look at how you can remove hiring bias with a view to hiring the best talent for the job; and third, overhaul your HR policies to maximise your chances of retaining your strongest talent, whether male or female.
Critical in all of this is the mindset of the CEO: promoting gender equity is not showing ‘charity’ towards women. It’s much more fundamental than that: it’s about identifying, nurturing and promoting the talent that is best for business or organizations to succeed.
CEOs should look at it from a business lens: what kinds of talent and employees will get my business to the next level? And, what are we missing out of by not creating inclusive enough workplaces where all genders can realize their potential?
 The ILO and Navigos Search’s study in 2015 pointed out that up to 83 percent of management job postings with gender preference required male applicants.
4. Some people argue that no one can help women, but they themselves have to be brave enough to get out of their comfort zone and take the challenges. What is your opinion regarding to this?
There’s of course value in building up women’s confidence, and encouraging them to take on challenges.
But increased confidence itself won’t solve the problem – (and note that overconfidence in women is not accepted, but can be admired in men). If the systems and the (unconscious) biases and social norms that surround women don’t change, increasing confidence itself won’t solve the problem.
Often, women must establish credibility in a (work) culture that equates leadership with behaviors considered more common in men, and that suggests that women are simply not “born” to be leaders.
The research I use in my work promotes three actions to support and advance gender diversity: Educate women and men about second-generation gender bias; create safe "identity workspaces" (i.e, women only programs) to support transitions to bigger roles; and anchor women's development efforts in their sense of leadership purpose rather than in how they are perceived.
However, women cannot – and should not – take on the whole responsibility to change the status quo; we need men to step up beside women and take responsibility with women, and disrupt the system to accelerate gender equality.
 A summary in: https://hbr.org/2013/09/women-rising-the-unseen-barriers