Returning work-life balance to augment women contributions

June 18, 2021 | 08:00
Despite Vietnam’s progression towards equal female participation in the workforce, the division of domestic labour in the family remains broadly unchanged. Women who work for the same duration as their husbands or partners and contribute to the financial status of the family are expected to raise children, care for elderly family members, and take care of household responsibilities. Work-life balance is a struggle faced by more women than men for this reason, particularly for working mothers who do not have nannies, who have to juggle their work, housework, and raising children.
Returning work-life balance to augment women contributions
MyLan Holland - Research associate, EQuest Asia

According to a 2021 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), women spend an average of 20.2 hours per week on domestic work, including cleaning the house, washing clothes, cooking and shopping for the family, family care, and childcare. Meanwhile, men spent only 10.7 hours on these tasks – and close to one-fifth of men did not spend any time on these activities at all.

Societal norms suggesting that it is a woman’s role to care for children and do the housework is holding back half the workforce in Vietnam. The economic growth that women in the workforce have brought to Vietnam is unmistakable, and by unloading some of these responsibilities assigned to women to men, Vietnam’s economy would continue to grow. The only true way to address imbalances is by changing the mindsets of both Vietnamese men and women, and be re-examining what are deemed traditional roles for women that are supported by the social norms.

Homemakers and breadwinners

The reason work-life balance is predominately a “women’s issue” is due societal norms that dictate that women’s role is to be caregivers or homemakers while men are the “breadwinners”. Though now almost an equal number of women as men join the workforce in Vietnam, women are also expected to remain caregivers whilst also balancing their careers and also be the breadwinners. This presents an obvious double burden that is often gone unnoticed and unacknowledged.

Seeing as there is a gender imbalance and societal pressures dictating that woman should raise children and do the housework, it is an issue that must be addressed by both women and men. Though many men may be unaware of their compliance in creating double burden for the women in their lives, they should reconsider their participation in sharing domestic duties equally.

The more men feel free saying they do not care about household chores or that women are somehow naturally better at cleaning or raising children, the longer these gender imbalances will remain.

Equal participation between partners in raising children and housework will be beneficial to family and work life.

The motherhood penalty

The gender stereotype that women are caregivers translates into the expectation that the mother will sacrifice more of their career than her male counterpart to raise children.

Coined as the “maternal wall bias” by Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, due to this stereotype, women of child bearing age are often viewed as less desirable hires or candidates in key corporate or management positions, as employers fear that they may get pregnant and drop their careers. Essentially, women are penalised for making the personal choice to become a mother.

Mothers or aspiring mothers are discriminated against, because societal norms expect women to raise their children rather than balance motherhood and a career. However, this sort of discrimination is not faced by new fathers. In fact, research has found that people are more sympathetic towards fathers than mothers in the workplace and that mothers or pregnant women are less committed to their jobs.

Rejoining the workforce

Research has shown that women who take maternity leave are less likely to be promoted, receive a pay raise once their leave is over or move into management. Not only that, but women who take longer leaves are often seen as less committed to their jobs than those who take shorter leaves. This demonstrates the trade-off many mothers face as they maintain their professional career whilst also raising and caring for their children.

Tam Huynh a manager at Robert Walters expressed that despite the strong support received from company management, it took her an additional six months to readjust to work after her six-month maternity leave. Being promoted mere months before giving birth (which is unusual in Vietnamese work environments), she shared about how difficult it was balancing management responsibilities with her new role as a mother, which often forced her to give up external company activities and extra work – not out of a lack of commitment but time constraints.

Though Robert Walters company has a very supportive and positive workplace culture that incorporates diversity and inclusion principles, women returning from maternity leave still face many challenges, reflecting the inherent discriminatory nature of well-meaning maternity leave policies that inadvertently penalise working women faced having children.

At the very least, these challenges should be acknowledged by family members who can provide essential support by sharing these new responsibilities placed on women and minimise their “double burden”.

When these responsibilities are shared by members of the family (especially men) a stronger sense of empathy and understanding will be gained, promoting the reconstruction of outdated family structures that hinder women at the workforce.

Shared parental leave

Though maternity leave is essential, its existence reinforces the stereotype that women are the sole caregivers by denying fathers the opportunity to be more involved without penalty to their career.

We can draw on the examples of Iceland, where legislation guarantees both fathers and mothers three months of paid leave each. Paternity leave was offered to fathers as non-transferrable time off to care for their children. The introduction of paternity leave in Vietnam could send a signal that fathers are valued for something other than income and allow them to share responsibilities with raising children and managing housework.

Adrien Bizouard, country manager of Robert Walters Vietnam, also suggested it would be a positive first step for Vietnam to guarantee leave for both men and women for the birth of their child, saying this way women may not feel the need to pass up promotions or key projects, thereby allowing both parents’ career trajectory to remain level.

If both parents taking leave were to become a norm, employers would begin to expect both parents to take an equal amount of time off for their children without penalising them for it.

Though equal parental leave is not a cure-all to create parity for women in the workplace and at home, it would be a good first step with proven efficacy. Additionally, since children learn through osmosis, this would provide excellent role models and expose them to gender-equal relationships.

By MyLan Holland - Research associate, EQuest Asia

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