Stats not enough: gender equality must pass reality test

May 14, 2023 - 08:00
While gender equality is a prerequisite of our lives, we must not let it fool us, and blindly follow its lure.
Illustration by Trịnh Lập

by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

How do you measure gender equality? By checking statistics or measuring the satisfaction level of both genders?

Is it about women who get promoted and earn the same salary as men, or having decisive power in a company or governing body?

I was surprised to hear an expat who speaks perfect Vietnamese on national television being asked by his bride's father, "Will you be able to nourish and nurture my daughter?"

It turned out that the couple will support each other. But the idea that a man must earn enough to support his family has been well-rooted in our culture, and it's almost always a concern of parents.

While that's a bold question for a father to ask his future son-in-law, it needs asking. Of course, no one today would rely on the answer, and the father would have ensured he has given his child an education, a craft, or any other means to help her get a job and able to support herself first, with or without a man.

If one looks at the annual reports, you will see improvements each year in female empowerment. In the 2022 World Economic Forum report, Việt Nam rose four levels compared to 2021. Currently, it stands at 83 out of 146 countries and territories surveyed, so it is about average in terms of women's empowerment, health issues and education.

In the public sector, at ministerial level, 13 ministries and same level establishments have women among their key leaders. Three women leaders are ministers of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Health, as well as the Governor of the State Bank of Việt Nam.

The government has also set an ambitious goal to reach the 60 per cent of state and local governing bodies having women among their key leaders by 2025, and this number should be up to 75 per cent by 2030.

The number of women in a leading position at People's Committees [administrative bodies] in provincial, district and communal levels at the beginning of the five-year term was 37 per cent, 31 and 26 per cent, respectively.

In the manufacturing sector, the target of women working with contracts by 2025 is 50 per cent, and up to 60 per cent by 2030.

These targets, according to the Labour and Social Work Academy, are within reach, as the number of contracted women workers in 2021 was 43.4 per cent, and is estimated to have grown by up to 49 per cent in 2022.

On the flip side, the Government has targeted lowering the number of women workers in agriculture to under 30 per cent by 2025 and below 25 per cent by 2030, while raising the number of women directors and private enterprise and co-operative owners by at least 27 per cent by 2025 and 30 per cent by 2030.

While all these targets look comprehensive and are to be much applauded, we need to look deeper, beyond simple statistics, to see if the improvements have been actually sustainable, especially when weighing up all the necessary tradeoffs.

When you see statistics showing the number of women in leadership in the public sector, you also need to bear in mind that the public sector wages are quite low.

If one parent gets a stable job with limited income, but fixed office hours, the other should work at various odd jobs while doing domestic work. This is applicable to graduate public employees, but the picture entirely changes if both parents work in the production sector, and they have to work shifts. It's impossible to raise young children, and they have to rely on grandparents to raise the kids until they can go to kindergartens.

The same rule goes for families with one parent working overseas, who will not get to see their children for several years, or parents who serve in the armed forces.

While gender equality has long been a norm we teach ourselves and our children, both girls and boys, there can be an unwanted backlash, despite the enormous efforts of so many generations of women who fought for equality and respect, both at home and in the workplace.

In any situation where both parents are working full time, there is always the potential the child can be negatively affected.

"Here in the West, they say they respect gender equality, so both shall work and rest accordingly," said a friend who has lived overseas for 30 years. "But what happens when you give birth and rush to get back to work again so that you will be equal to your partner, or to other guys at work? It's not worth it, if it's your child who suffers."

Beware, while gender equality is a prerequisite of our lives, we must not let it fool us, and blindly follow its lure. It's great if you decide to focus on your career, but do not make yourself believe you're any less equal if you become a full-time mother. VNS