Ton Nuơ Tḥ Ninh served her country as Ambassador and Head of Mission to the European Union in Brussels, then as vice-chair of Viet Nam's 11th National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Committee, and now as the Head of Tri Viet Institute. Madam Ninh has worked to build bridges of understanding between Viet Nam and the world. She is the recipient of the Vietnamese Labour Order, First Class, the Belgian Order of Leopold II and, recently, the French Legion d'Honneur (Officier).
I met Ninh in a recent debate about women's empowerment organized by the World Bank and Tri Viet Institute with support from Deloitte Viet Nam. During her life, Ninh has been continuously engaged with post-war legacy and gender issues. She was more than willing to express her point of view on the topic "Women in Leadership and the Glass Ceiling", but, as usual, politely declined to answer questions relating to herself and her achievements.
Inner Sanctum: You appear in newspapers as one of the public figures who made the greatest impact on today's Viet Nam, but even after receiving the French Legion d'Honneur (Officier), you still refuse to disclose details to the media about your personal life. Why?
Sometimes I am surprised that the media is so interested in me. I've been asked repeatedly about my private life. It is not something I want to talk about, because it is not something interesting about me. I don't mean I am not interesting. I just mean what is more interesting lies in my mind and my heart. I prefer journalists to focus on my viewpoints and my work.
When I refuse to answer these questions, it appears that I am modest, but honestly, I need private space. I don't approach the media to polish my own reputation. I am glad that my family has always sympathized with me and I have tried not to let their lives be affected by media coverage.
Inner Sanctum: In the meeting, we mentioned the role of Vietnamese women in families. Personally, I believe that household tasks should be divided between men and women, but someone always ends up playing the leading role. Who do you think more suitable to do this, and which role do you take in your family?
I don't like the phrase "God-given duty"* to be applied to women, because it is an inflexible definition. However, men and women are different, and there should be a division of roles between them based on mutual respect.
There are husbands who cook very well. My brother is a case in point. He lives in France and his wife still works. Because he has retired and he loves delicious food, he often cooks himself. Coming back from work, my sister-in-law just cleans the house and does other things. They divide household work without having to talk about it.
In my house, I love arranging stuff and keeping things in order. I do it all by myself. But when I am busy, my husband cooks. He doesn't cook perfectly, but he knows how to do it.
In other words, we rely on one another's strong points and share duties. We don't need a detailed schedule of who does what.
Inner Sanctum: We talked extensively about the challenges Vietnamese female leaders face when striving for leadership positions in both life and work. But I wonder about the challenges facing their husbands. What kind of husband is best for these female leaders? How about in your case?
In a society like Viet Nam that is still very traditional, it might be difficult for both men and women if the wife has a higher social position. I often joke with young ladies that they should be very careful when picking a life partner. If they know their work one day will involve travelling abroad, communicating with different kinds of people and doing a lot of social work, they should not marry someone conservative.
In my case, from the beginning, I asked my husband if he would be okay with me being away from home frequently. I was straightforward, and he still married me. He can't blame me now for not warning him!
Inner Sanctum: Many Vietnamese couples today still live with their parents-in-law, who don't want their sons to do anything around the house. This is also the way many young men are raised. Do you think there should be gender education in school to change this viewpoint?
In school students are taught civics education lessons, in which they are encouraged to help the elderly, support vulnerable people, follow the law and so on. I think we should also include gender equality in the lessons as part of the general subject of human rights. By framing the issue in that way, people will realise that this is not an individual issue, or one affecting exclusively men or women. It is an issue that our society as a whole must address.
Inner Sanctum: The role of men can be a key catalyst for changing social attitudes towards female leaders. But I saw few men attending the debate. Why?
There are only two ways to get men to attend such events. First, our invitation should be framed as an order and sent as a "government request", in which the man's name is mentioned directly. We need firm solutions here, and those depend on changes in government structure.
We also need to promote gender equality via the internet and social networks. The number of men and women attending online forums can be more equal than physical events like this.
By the way, we should remember that it's necessary to change women's minds, too. Many modern women who grew up in favourable conditions where they were free to think as they wished assume that others think the same way. They perceive the barriers as invisible ones that are only in women's minds and not real. But the truth is different.
Inner Sanctum: We've talked a lot about the debate, so here's a question about your life. In the past, you've worked as a diplomat and an elected representative. Today, you work as a social entrepreneur and a popular speaker. How have you enjoyed your roles and which one do you like best?
I enjoyed all of them and don't have a favourite. I have yet to have a single boring day in my working life, because most of the time it is a journey of discovery. If years later, some journalists asked me the cliche question about the secret to my success, I would answer that the secret is to learn new things every day.
Each diplomat has a different weapon to be successful in their negotiations, and for me, it is communication. Good communication skills help me today as a speaker. In the future, I hope I can take advantage of this skill to help create a better and more humane society. — VNS
* In the debate, the female CEO of a big corporation argued that the "God-given duty" of a woman is to be a mother and wife. Madame Ninh then questioned if men had an equal "God-given duty "to be fathers and husbands. In Viet Nam, the phrase "God-given duty" applies only to women.