Bruce Delteil is the managing partner of McKinsey & Company’s Vietnam office. He is based in Hanoi, where Patti Wang works as a consultant.
Over the past few years, Vietnam has seen progress in gender equality. Almost three-quarters of Vietnamese women have been active in the workforce over the past 20 years, according to the World Bank and IMF. This is much higher than Vietnam’s regional peers and other advanced economies.
Fortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has not derailed Vietnam’s progress toward gender parity. In November 2020, the International Labor Organization reported that women in Vietnam are increasingly well-prepared for decision-making roles in businesses. Sixty-three percent of enterprises surveyed in Vietnam indicated that women were present at the supervisory management level and 73 percent confirmed that they had women as middle managers.
Looking ahead, Vietnam will need to build on this progress by taking stock and preparing for the future of work. The country is facing challenges of different sorts, particularly as digital adoption is accelerating across key sectors of the economy.
How digital technologies impact women in the workforce
Digital transformation has had wide-sweeping effects on every country and industry. Recent McKinsey research suggests that in Vietnam, digital technologies will create a revenue pool of US$100 billion by 2025, generated by the formation of ecosystems. Digital is also transforming the way people work as workplaces increasingly automate tasks and adopt new technologies. This is especially true in service-heavy industries that account for a significant share of women’s employment.
These trends will impact women and their livelihoods. In 2019, McKinsey found that 40 million to 160 million women worldwide – seven to 24 percent of those currently employed – may need to transition across occupations to ensure that they are positioned for shifts in labor demand. The demand for tech-enabled jobs has only accelerated in the past year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
There are two noticeable workforce shifts. Process automation technologies will impact jobs in meaningful ways as humans learn to work alongside machines. The job requirements of secretaries, teachers, and other professionals have changed significantly as computers have automated several manual tasks, such as basic data collection and processing. New jobs related to developing and deploying new technologies may also emerge.
Women in Vietnam cannot afford to miss out on a digital future. If Vietnam is to reach its goal of building a digital economy that accounts for 20 percent of GDP by 2025, it will require the right supporting enablers to help women benefit from the skill transition.
Facilitating the transitions and challenging the barriers for women
In facilitating the workforce transition for women in Vietnam, existing barriers across three major areas must be eliminated. There needs to be concerted and targeted effort aimed at helping women gain access to more jobs, overcome financial constraints, and get into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
1. Enabling broader access to jobs through reskilling
Women must overcome long-established and pervasive structural and societal barriers to employment or upskilling opportunities. These include having less time to refresh or learn new skills, or search for employment because of the time spent on unpaid care. Women do an average of 75 percent of the world’s total unpaid-care work, including childcare, caring for the elderly, cooking, and cleaning.
To address this, there needs to be greater flexibility and mobility to negotiate labor-market transitions successfully. Technological change, in itself, should help to make women’s working lives more flexible by enabling teleworking, for instance. Governments can help, for example, by enabling better access to maternity and parental leave and childcare.
It is also important to introduce more ways to equip women with the skills that will be in demand. The private sector can invest more in training and reskilling their female employees, either within their organizations or in partnership with academic institutions. Public and private investment in digital learning platforms would open up another avenue for women; and governments could, for example, provide incentives such as subsidies for undertaking this training.
2. Closing the gender gap in financial inclusion
Women generally don’t have equal access to the professional networks and sponsors needed to easily navigate job transitions. Financial support such as unemployment benefits and insurance could help facilitate these transitions. Labor agencies can focus on providing assistance to the unemployed: serving as job counselors and enabling access to potential training and job opportunities for those temporarily out of the workforce.
Women’s access to basic enabling technology, notably Internet and mobile technologies, also needs to expand. Barriers to women working in the gig economy need to be addressed, including risks to their physical safety and the lack of social protection for such workers, which may expose women to income insecurity.
3. Increasing women’s participation and engagement in STEM fields
Girls’ education in Vietnam has improved markedly in recent years, with the country scoring relatively highly on the World Bank’s gender parity indices for primary, secondary, and higher education. This suggests that women should be better positioned now than in the past to take advantage of shifts in labor demand.
Leveraging this momentum, there is a need to create pathways in getting more women into STEM fields – by both enabling broader access to technology and participating in its creation. Companies in STEM fields can invest in and partner with non-profits and colleges to develop a broader pipeline of women going into tech fields.
Finally, more can be done to address the funding gap faced by women tech entrepreneurs, as part of the broad effort to encourage women to create technology and work in new ways. Measures can include eliminating biases in recruitment and selection processes for incubators or accelerators, and introducing special funding pools that focus on women-owned enterprises.
The good news is that the forces of technology and innovation that characterize the automation age can also pave the way for more gender equality in the workforce. There is a huge opportunity for private- and public-sector leaders to enable women to make the necessary transitions in the three areas.
Across all verticals, women must have the skills necessary to participate in Vietnam’s digital transformation – as consumers, workers, and business owners. The dividends that will flow from this will be felt in the economy and in society at large. This is a true win-win that everyone should embrace after they celebrated International Women’s Day earlier this month.