Interview with Ms. Nguyen Thi Bich Ha, Secretary General of the Ho Chi Minh City Association for Women Executives & Entrepreneurs
The Ho Chi Minh City Association for Women Executives & Entrepreneurs (HAWEE) is the city’s first professional organisation for women. HAWEE’s mission is to help Vietnamese women grow their businesses.
We were recently able to catch Ms. Nguyen Thi Bich Ha, Vice President cum Secretary General of HAWEE.
What is HAWEE’s mission?
HAWEE was inaugurated on March 6, 2015 by Ms. Cao Thi Ngoc Dung, Chairwoman and CEO of Phu Nhuan Jewelry Joint Stock Company (PNJ). Prior to founding HAWEE, Ms. Cao Thi Ngoc Dung was involved in many business associations, where she soon realised that there weren’t any professional organisations addressing the specific needs of Ho Chi Minh City’s female entrepreneurs.
HAWEE’s motto is ‘Listening, Sharing, be Positive, and be Joyful’. We seek to increase trade opportunities and investment exchanges for our members. We facilitate this by connecting HCMC businesswomen to one another, and to international entrepreneurs and organisations. HAWEE also works to improve its members’ leadership capabilities, and offers them tips and advice on how to balance their personal lives, their business, and their family.
What challenges do Vietnamese women typically face in the workplace?
On paper, there isn’t much gender discrimination in Vietnam’s many workplaces. In fact, Vietnamese men and women typically have equal payrolls and responsibilities. However, traditional gender roles governing office responsibilities, relationship building and home responsibilities significantly hinder the professional development of many women in Vietnam.
For example, to nurture and take care of others is still considered a traditional role of Vietnamese women, thus the office ‘housekeeping’ activities, such as making coffee or tea, tends to fall on women, reducing their overall productivity at work.
Women also remain disadvantaged when building personal business relationships, or ‘guanxi’, outside of work. It is typical in our culture, along with many other Asian cultures, to meet after work for drinks to build ‘guanxi’. Women that attend these events feel pressure to drink less, in order to remain composed, while men are often encouraged to drink heavily. Many women often avoid these events altogether, for fear of losing respect within their professional circles.
Lastly, on top of work-related responsibilities, women are also expected to take care of household chores and family duties. Although we are seeing a change in the younger generation, women from previous generations still tend to prioritise their traditional family role to the detriment of their career advancement.
How does HAWEE change perceptions of women in the workplace?
We organise a number of community activities throughout the year to roll out progressive steps towards gender equality.
For instance, last March, we co-organised a walkathon with the Women’s Union of HCMC, in order to raise awareness and advocate for women’s development. The event also raised funds for scholarships. Around 2,000 women attended this event.
We also host a HAWEE Family Day to celebrate HAWEE members and encourage the next generation of entrepreneurs. At this event, children of our members share what they think about their mothers, future career ideas and whether they want to follow in their mother’s footsteps.
Next October, we will establish the HAWEE Foundation, a separate entity under HAWEE. Members will contribute to the fund to support other women who are starting and growing their businesses. The foundation will also provide scholarships for girls in mountainous areas so they can gain greater access to education. We believe that preparing the next generation is very important in making an impact to further empower women in the workforce.
How does HAWEE develop leadership skills of Vietnamese women?
We have peer-to-peer mentoring meetings in which women share experiences and tips on business negotiation, different leadership styles, and personal values. This August, we are going to launch a peer-to-peer consultancy service for members, facilitating group problems solving. Previously, HAWEE also held a forum on ‘Leadership for Success in Integration’.
How does HAWEE help women grow their businesses?
In 2015, HAWEE held factory visits to our members’ facilities, promoting their business to our members. We also organise seminars and discussions on HR management, productivity enhancement, and business matching with HAWEE’s partners.
This September, we will arrange a member-driven delegation to India. The Indian Embassy and HCMC authorities are very supportive of the event. Through this delegation, we want to learn and explore the potential of Indian markets by meeting and building trade relationships with women wings from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).
How does HAWEE help women balance work and life?
Since everyone faces unique, individual challenges, we arrange different activities to build inner-strength for women so they can face their own issues. For instance, in our monthly Angels meetings, we discuss inner-peace and practice meditation. Our aim is to help our members relieve stress, manage anger issues, and build harmony for themselves, and with others in the workplace and at home.
How have recent legal changes in Vietnamese law intended to reduce gender discrimination affecting women in the workplace?
Recently the Vietnamese government has taken steps to address these issues by initiating women friendly policies. For instance, during pregnancy, women are typically entitled to five to ten working days off for check-ups. Since May 2013, female workers in Vietnam are entitled to six months of maternity leave. If a woman has more than one child, she is entitled to a further 30 days off for each additional child. A woman who has a child under 12 months old, is also now entitled to 60 minutes per working day to take care of her baby.
Although these policies are positive steps forward, they can also negatively affect the city’s businesses which often struggle to find short-term employees to fill maternity leave vacancies. As a result of this tightening in regulation, a surge in discriminatory practices has recently been observed. Many steps in both policymaking and practices are needed to make Vietnamese workplaces truly egalitarian.
It is also important that the government encourage a progressive attitude amongst men, especially the younger generation, towards women in the workplace.