‘Some male colleagues seemed skeptical of my capabilities’

Gender activist Trang Do, in conversation

Trang Do, 26, is the co-founder of FemaLEAD – Vietnam Young Women Leadership, a non-profit project that aims to empower university students to become future leaders. She works tirelessly to challenge societal stereotypes and empower young female students in Vietnam and in the ASEAN region to become agents of change.

According to the 2022 World Economic Forum Report, Vietnam’s gender gap index stood at 0.705 on a scale of 0 to 1, positioning it at 83 out of 146 countries. Despite recent advancements in gender equality, there remains a notable absence of women in leadership positions. In executive government, women occupy only 21 per cent of key leadership positions. Additionally, the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs found in its review of the National Strategy of Gender Equality (NSGE) 2011-2020 that the goal to enhance women’s involvement in managerial and leadership roles fell short of the intended target after a 10-year implementation of the NSGE.

Established in 2020, FemaLEAD is a project sponsored by the US Embassy and part of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative’s framework (YSEALI). The project aims to change Vietnamese female university students’ perception of women leadership and empower them to become leaders in their future workplaces. It includes an incubation program for promising female students, along with social media campaigns, talk shows, and summits. These initiatives have engaged over 2,000 participants, including potential young female leaders from across the country. Currently, FemaLEAD serves as a reliable and accessible source of information for numerous young individuals interested in advancing women’s roles and promoting gender equality.

As part of The Breaker’s International Women’s Day coverage, Uyen Ngo interviewed Trang Do on the opportunities for women in leadership roles at all levels. Excerpts from the interview:

Vietnam boasts over a 70 per cent female workforce participation rate, one of the highest globally. Despite this, women still encounter barriers to equal opportunities in accessing leadership positions. From your perspective, what are the main reasons behind this disparity?

There are several reasons leading to this disparity. First, even though more and more women have joined the workforce and are contributing to the economy, in the traditional perspectives and expectations, their responsibilities in the family remain the same. Women are still expected to take care of their children and manage the household chores after work, while many men can just come home and relax. Women feel compelled to conform to traditional gender roles which say that a good wife must ‘excel at work and perfect at home’. This disparity in the division of unpaid labor can hinder women’s ability to pursue leadership roles.

Women feel compelled to conform to traditional gender roles which say that a good wife must ‘excel at work and perfect at home’.

The second reason is due to stereotypes about their leadership qualities. There is a widely held belief that women are less assertive, decisive, and authoritative than men, which can harm their credibility as leaders. They may face criticism for violating traditional gender norms, creating a “double bind” where they are perceived as either too soft or too aggressive. Another stereotype is the notion that women are less competent, especially in male-dominated fields such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) or industries typically associated with masculine traits. This can cause women’s abilities and credentials to be underestimated or questioned.

Third, women often face significant challenges in access to professional networks and mentorship. This is due to the prevalence of male-dominated networks and the scarcity of female role models in leadership positions. These existing male-centric networks can create obstacles for women seeking to build connections, gain visibility, and acquire the necessary guidance and support from experienced mentors. Furthermore, the lack of female leaders in various industries and sectors limits the availability of relatable role models who can provide valuable insights, advice, and inspiration for aspiring women leaders.

Are these the reasons why you founded FemaLEAD?

Yes, these reasons motivated us to initiate a project that would contribute to social change. When we researched the issue of leadership representation across business, government, and political spheres, we found that the majority of leaders were male. Back then, according to data from the Boston Consulting Group in 2018, 25 per cent of CEO/Board-level positions in Vietnam were held by women.

We realised that female students are an extremely valuable resource for the future market, but most of them accept gender stereotypes as part of life. Our surveyed female students expressed concerns about social norms regarding women’s roles in the family and future employment, as they lacked the skills demanded by the world of work.

Therefore, Nguyen Khanh Linh, founder of the project, invited me as the co-founder, along with other core team members, to establish FemaLEAD. When designing the project, we kept asking ourselves, ‘How can we change people’s perceptions of women’s leadership? How can we empower female students to become leaders in their future workplaces?’

Over two seasons, we are proud to have successfully implemented various activities and campaigns, including two talk series on women’s leadership, two mentoring programmes, a seeding fund programme for mentees, a writing contest, TikTok video challenges, and two women’s summits, among others.

As a female leader, what key obstacles have you encountered in your journey, and how have you addressed them?

I’ve encountered many obstacles along my journey. Firstly, there have been times when some male colleagues seemed skeptical of my capabilities or authority simply because I’m a woman. Initially, this lack of trust and credibility was frustrating. However, I’ve learned that the most effective way to address it is through consistent, excellent performance that speaks for itself. By delivering strong results again and again, I’ve gradually earned the respect and confidence of even the most doubtful colleagues.

Another challenge I’ve faced is my natural tendency as a woman to be a people-pleaser and avoid direct conflict. While this allows me to build positive relationships, I’ve had to consciously develop the courage to have tough conversations when needed and be firm in my decision-making. It’s a delicate balance, but I’ve grown in my ability to be both caring and resolute as a leader.

Working with colleagues from different generations has also presented obstacles at times. Some initially questioned my leadership skills due to my young age combined with being a woman. However, by proving my competence through successful projects and initiatives, I’ve overcome those doubts. It takes persistence, but earning that hard-won respect is gratifying.

How important do you think it is to have a robust female presence in leadership roles?

Gender equality doesn’t always mean a strict 50:50 ratio of men and women in leadership roles.

I believe it is absolutely crucial to have a robust female presence in leadership roles across all sectors and industries. Achieving greater gender balance and amplifying women’s voices in positions of power and influence is vital for several reasons.

First, to me, gender equality doesn’t always mean a strict 50:50 ratio of men and women in leadership roles. Gender equality is that anyone has the same opportunity to choose the position and the role they would like to be. If a woman would like to be and has the ability to become a leader, she should have the opportunity to take this role. And that creates equity.

When we have women take leadership roles, we can also bring different perspectives and diverse leadership styles to organisations and institutions. In my opinion, it is not only something we must have, but it’s also very important to embrace diverse opinions and perspectives. I believe this will help organisations develop sustainably and diversely.

Additionally, women in visible leadership roles provide crucial role models and inspiration for young girls and women aspiring to leadership paths themselves. Seeing their gender represented at the highest levels helps shatter glass ceilings and psychological barriers. It expands the perception of what’s possible and motivates future generations.

Furthermore, numerous studies show that organisations with gender-diverse leadership tend to outperform those without diversity, benefiting from enhanced decision-making, innovation, governance, and financial returns. Having women’s talents and leadership abilities fully leveraged leads to competitive advantages.

In your opinion, what measures or strategies could address gender inequality in leadership roles in Vietnam?

This is an extremely important issue that requires a multi-faceted approach to drive meaningful change. In my view, some key strategies we could pursue in Vietnam include:

From the top-down approach, we need comprehensive policies and social welfare programmes that create an equitable society for all genders. This includes policies supporting women’s well-being throughout major life stages like pregnancy, childbirth and ageing. Providing this crucial support system, along with engaging men as equal partners in domestic responsibilities, can help shift entrenched social stereotypes that unfairly burden women.

Equally important is an approach focused on changing mindsets and self-perceptions around gender and leadership. We need dedicated initiatives aimed at undoing the self-limiting attitudes and gender biases that many women unconsciously internalise from an early age. Programmes like leadership academies and mentorship platforms can be transformative in this regard.

Moreover, we must redefine our societal notions of what leadership truly encompasses. Too often, leadership is narrowly associated with hierarchical workplace roles. However, true leadership starts with having the empowerment to take ownership of one’s life path. Every woman deserves an equal opportunity to chart her own course, whether that involves pursuing a career, running a household, or both in parallel.

By raising awareness that leadership comes in many forms, and intentionally helping women gain a deeper self-awareness as leaders, we can spark a shift in general perspectives around women’s potential. Lastly, positive role modelling and showcasing diverse examples of women’s leadership journeys across all spheres of life can have a powerful ripple effect in inspiring future generations.

My aspiration is to see Vietnam achieve true gender parity in leadership across all sectors.

Looking ahead, what are your hopes and aspirations for the future of women’s leadership in Vietnam?

My aspiration is to see Vietnam achieve true gender parity in leadership across all sectors, while empowering every woman to become the leader of her life journey. I envision girls having countless female role models, and workplaces nurturing women into leadership through inclusive training and equal opportunities.

However, leadership transcends just traditional roles. I hope more Vietnamese women embrace their power as entrepreneurs, policy influencers, community leaders and agents of change in whichever path they choose. Just as crucial is ensuring all women have the rights and opportunities to define their own destinies – be it career, household, or both.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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