Empowered but still fighting

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Women make up almost three-quarters of Vietnam’s workforce, but persisting stereotypes and male dominance of senior positions mean equality is still a work-in-progress

“With 72% of women in the workforce, Vietnam falls into the group of nations with the highest percentages of women in the labour pool. The country has also made tremendous strides in developing its legal system on gender equality by amending the constitution and passing the Law on Gender Equality. The constitution, which was amended in 2001, stipulates that ‘all citizens regardless of their sex have equal rights in all respects’ and that ‘any discrimination against women and violation of women’s dignity is prohibited’.

Despite their contribution to the national economy and legislative progress, women still encounter numerous barriers and challenges to employment equality. Although they constitute a large percentage of associates at law firms or legal functions in the private sector, women represent less than 30% of partners and managing partners. In short, female practitioners, and working women in general, are still encumbered by Vietnam’s traditional customs, which require women to handle family responsibilities while holding on to their careers.

Phuong Nguyen
Managing partner Vietnam
Zico Law, Hanoi

Although there has been a positive change in attitudes towards women in the past 30 years, the legal profession still faces some problems related to male dominance of senior positions. Women are often viewed as incapable of handling the same tasks as men, which allows male-directed inappropriate behaviour to thrive. In conformity with the long history of Confucian tradition, women are usually the primary caregivers in Vietnam, so they are given more ‘office housework’ and less access to prime job assignments.

When I was a junior associate, I was expected to be helpful and therefore tended to feel social pressure to volunteer for ‘office housework’. Firms are more likely to assign these tasks to women because they are more likely to agree to perform them.

This power imbalance, where women are relegated to menial tasks and lower positions of authority, has repercussions beyond securing key mandates and achieving seniority. Young junior lawyers can feel reluctant to raise complaints or issues about treatment they’ve been subjected to, including sexual harassment. In particular, senior partners who generate enormous revenues, have a strong client base or who are important to a firm, are protected.

Without doubt, firms can sweep misconduct by such partners under the rug. Since there are no formal or legal studies addressing the impact or scale of sexual harassment in Vietnam, it is difficult to combat and remains under-reported, deep-rooted and widespread. A lack of direct provisions within the existing labour code to effectively prohibit misconduct and protect victims, means many, embarrassed and afraid of losing their jobs, will stay silent.

Women also face a setback with regard to retirement rules. In the public justice system, or in-house at state-owned companies, men retire at 60, while women must retire at 55. Although it is not easy for a woman to successfully fulfil the duties of wife, mother and lawyer simultaneously, I never forget that family comes first. I keep in mind that lawyers who are role models have balance in their lives. People are unlikely to emulate a work-obsessed, ambition-driven lawyer whose family is an afterthought.”

Senior women lawyers across Asia share personal stories of successes, struggles and strategies for a more inclusive legal profession. The following mosaic of personal stories identifies some of the nuances that typify women’s experiences in particular Asian jurisdictions, while also drawing on the wealth of shared experiences that bind them.

An Asian mosaic