Women account for around half of the Viet Nam's workforce, but occupy less than a quarter of senior management roles. © Thanh Tung/Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment
Women account for around half of the Viet Nam's workforce, but occupy less than a quarter of senior management roles. © Thanh Tung/Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment
15 October 2020

To support women in leadership, address their caregiving burden

Author: Takara Morgan, Le Thi Hong Giang
Published by: Care, CARE International in Viet Nam, ALIGN

The lack of women leaders in the workplace is a pressing issue in Viet Nam. While women account for around half of the country’s workforce, a study has found they occupy only 22% of senior management roles and only 25% of CEO or board-level positions. There is an emerging consensus that this gender gap is the result of perceptions that women are not fit for leadership roles.

This raises a simple question: How can we address the norms that keep women out of leadership positions in the workplace? New research in Viet Nam suggests effective ways to tackle this challenge – by starting at home and addressing the norms around caregiving, particularly among urban millennials.

In late 2019, Investing in Women (IW), an initiative of the Australian Government, commissioned a qualitative study with CARE International in Viet Nam to examine:

  • how social norms that affect the recruitment and promotion of women are maintained
  • what makes people comply with these norms, and
  • who can help to shift these social norms.

The study drew on Biccheri’s concept of social norms and CARE’s Social Norms Analysis Framework (SNAP) to examine:

  • Two gendered social norms
    • Women should be primarily responsible for child and family caretaking (caregiving norm).
    • Women should not be in leadership positions within the workplace (leadership norm).
  • Attitude
    • Men are more suitable for technical jobs than women.

The study explored how gendered social norms intersect with other social determinants like age, marital status, whether women have children, their location and the sectors in which they work.

Critically, the study looked not just at what people do and what they think other people think they should do, but also at people’s sensitivity to social sanctions. From this, the study was able to identify the ‘exceptions’: the people who ignore the norms. They show us where there are weaknesses and faultlines in social norms, and offer opportunities to change them for the better. 

How does the caregiving norm interact with the leadership norm?

One unique finding emerging from this research is how the caregiving norm interacts with the leadership norm. The study found that if women are primarily responsible for taking care of children and the rest of the family (complying with the caregiving norm), they do not expect to face as many sanctions for being in leadership positions. Most of the anticipated sanctions relate to those who do not comply with the caregiving norm. This suggests that the leadership norm appears to be weak – it is not widely shared, rarely influences behaviour, and seems flexible. This presents a real opportunity for change.

Opportunities for norm change to address women’s caregiving burden

The CARE in Viet Nam study found that the caregiving norm is strong in the country, with clear and shared expectations about typical and appropriate behaviour. Regardless of their age, the caregiving norm is strongest among women who have children under the age of two, as these women are expected to be the primary caregiver.

Despite anticipated sanctions, however, women in their late twenties believe that sanctions should be ignored and that women should follow their careers. There may, therefore, be more opportunities to consolidate norm change among women in this age group. It may be possible, for example, to bridge connections among like-minded women in similar situations so that they can tap into  peer support and broaden their reference group, becoming part of a group that is more supportive of change.

The study found opportunities to facilitate norm change for young female millennials who are under 25 years or in their early thirties, single women, and women with no children. Despite the strong anticipated sanctions related to caregiving roles, these women are firm in their belief that women should ignore sanctions from their reference groups (mostly their husbands and partners) and pursue leadership opportunities.

While the study could not confirm the linkage between sectors and women’s susceptibility to change, observations from fieldwork across four sectors suggest that there are fewer opportunities to facilitate norm change among women in the food processing and banking sectors, compared to the IT and garment sectors. This is because women in the food processing and banking sectors perceive that their reference groups expect them to follow the caregiving norm.

The study also found that workplace-related factors could support compliance or non-compliance with gendered social norms. These factors include good career prospects, good remuneration packages, high job demand in the market, gender-sensitive policies in the workplace, accessible training and leadership opportunities, good teamwork and job security.

Women account for around half of the Viet Nam's workforce, but occupy less than a quarter of senior management roles. © Thanh Tung/Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment


Six key recommendations have emerged from our research.

  1. Prioritise resources to change the caregiving norm. The strong moderating effect of the caregiving norm on the leadership norm implies that facilitating change in the leadership norm alone will have little or no impact.
  2. Interventions to influence social norms should take a community approach, and ensure that both reference groups and decision-makers are targeted by different strategies. There should be a strong focus on changing the expectations of the reference groups (e.g. husbands, partners) on what is considered appropriate behaviour.
  3. Communication messages should aim to change gendered stereotypes and harmful personal beliefs to weaken the gendered norms associated with caregiving and leadership. Changing these stereotypes and beliefs could help to change both the caregiving and leadership norms and attitudes that see women as unsuitable for technical jobs.
  4. Social norm campaigns should mobilise new norms that challenge heteronormative and patriarchal ideologies. For example:
  • a woman does not need to get married to be happy
  • a woman’s value should not be judged according to her decisions to marry, have children or pursue a career
  • a woman’s capacity should not be assessed according to her age, health status, appearance or marital status; and
  • a man should not be expected to be the head of the household.
  1. Norm change is more effective when the source of resistance is identified and relevant influencing strategies are selected to reduce that resistance. Recommended strategies to reduce resistance can include:
  • Using participant-led social change activities in which participants critically reflect, explore and challenge the pressing social norms, beliefs and practices that are important to them. One example is CARE’s Social Analysis and Actions (SAA) approach, which facilitates critical reflection and gender dialogues within households as well as across the wider community.
  • Social gatekeepers – such as micro-influencers on social media channels, and religious, traditional and political leaders in the community – can help to show the way towards more equitable norms.  
  1. Invest in facilitating norm change as part of early childhood education when children start their daycare. Changing the social norms on caring responsibility, women’s leadership and individual beliefs about the technical capacities of women and men has to start early:  beginning with early childhood education.

About the authors

Takara MorganTakara Morgan

Takara Morgan is the Country Program and Business Development Advisor at CARE International in Viet Nam. She supports partnerships, program quality, and learning across CARE’s portfolio. In Viet Nam, CARE works on women’s economic empowerment, prevention of gender-based violence, civil society development, and climate change and resilience initiatives. Connect with Takara on LinkedIn.

Le Thi Hong GiangLe Thi Hong Giang

Le Thi Hong Giang is the Gender Advisor at CARE International in Viet Nam and co-led the research, ‘Investigating Gendered Social Norms Affecting Women’s Economic Participation related to Recruitment and Promotion in Viet Nam’, the main subject of this blog.

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