In Vietnam, the women rule, at least as far as demographics are concerned. According to the last census, there are 48,327,923 women, enough to comprise 50.2% of the population. Nearly 88% of the population aged between 25-59 participated in the labor force. A slightly different statistic from The Economist states that “some 79% of women aged 15 to 64 are in the labour force, compared with 86% of men.” The age ranges are different, but the fact is that nearly 80% of women old enough to work in Vietnam are working. That figure is higher than all the members of the OECD except Iceland, Sweden, and Switzerland. According to Dezan-Shira “Female laborers account for 48.4 percent of the country’s workforce and create 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.”
Women, it is obvious from these statistics, are a major part of Vietnam’s economy. I site these numbers in recognition of International Women’s Day—which occurred this week—and of the importance of equality in the workplace, even in countries riddled with a Confucian ideology (important because of its misogynistic definitions of relationships between individuals of different genders).
While I could find no relevant statistics for women in law practice in Vietnam, Grant Thornton reported last year that 36% of senior management teams in Vietnam included women. That ranks Vietnam second in Asia, behind the Philippines, for including women in management positions.
“The report showed the top four roles of Vietnamese women in business are Chief Finance Officer (36 percent), Chief Executive Officer or Managing Director (30 percent), Human Resources Director and Chief Marketing Officer (25 percent).”
A brief survey of law firms, and from my own experience, firms are rarely aware of equality. While some high profile firms, like VILAF and LNT Partners, have females as managing partners, the vast majority of both partners and management at law firms in Vietnam is male. Women tend to occupy lower level associate positions and administrative or secretarial functions.
While this statement is not meant to condemn law firms in Vietnam, it is simply to point up that the issue is not front of mind for most lawyers, a demographic who, due to their education and position dealing with legislation often affecting equality, frequently are at the forefront of equality battles throughout the world.
The most recent statistic I could find showed that Vietnam had over 11 thousand lawyers and 4,000 trainee attorneys. That number has surely grown. As a portion of the overall population, lawyers represent a small number, and facing an environment that is not necessarily friendly to boat rocking, it is understandable that activism is something that is not common amidst the community of law practitioners.
That said, there remains much to be done for equality without petitioning the National Assembly for legislative change. Hiring and promotion policies can be set in place and adhered to. When I interned at VILAF over a decade ago, I helped draft an equal hiring policy that was adopted by the partnership. VILAF is one of the few firms with a female managing partner. Throughout Vietnam there remain questions about whether that push for equality is reflected in the day to day lives of their employees.
For other firms, too, high level policies don’t always translate into an environment friendly to women and minorities. The problem, as I see it, is that management in most Vietnamese law firms are more concerned with product output and thus spend their time on management issues only when there is a fire to be put out. Regular performance reviews and feedback interviews of employees and associate attorneys would offer those in the trenches the opportunity to voice dissatisfaction with coworkers and management who might be acting negatively in the workplace.
Active management, then, would be a good first step. Of the half dozen law firms I’ve been involved with in Southeast Asia, only one provided a regular performance review and then it was focused so entirely on my mistakes that I left feeling depressed and defeated, not able to voice my own thoughts on the performance of my supervisor or of any problems I might have within the environment of the company.
As the number of lawyers registered with the bar association in Vietnam is minimal, there are practically no unions in place to protect law firm employees. Each firm is defined by the personality and the opinions of the management and partnership and the morale and allowable behavior of the associates and employees are formed accordingly. Again, this Is a call for more active management, management aware of its effect on those who it oversees, but still, something that can be improved.
Perhaps I should be more lenient as the concept of a law firm in Vietnam is barely twenty years old. The firm is young, and many of these problems are found in the more developed world as well. It is a flaw in the law firm order that allows for an inordinate power inequality between management and employees and creates an environment which is so powerfully shaped by one or a few personalities. To go further would enter into a discussion of labor relations and that would take far more than I’m allotted by a single blog post.
Suffice it to say, then, that in some ways Vietnam is doing well. In pure statistics it performs competitively with the best countries in the world. Unfortunately, the situation is fraught with ages old ideologies that create an atmosphere of expected subservience and can intimidate those who are at the bottom end of defined relationships. To improve requires an active measure of change on the part of men and management. We can all do better and, in the memory of the annual International Women’s Day, each of us should consider ways to improve our personal relationships and our treatment of others.