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“It was in my blood to run a business”: Overcoming gender stereotypes in Vietnam

Vietnamese entrepreneur Le Hong Van owns two factories and employs between seven and ten staff, dependent on the season. Photo: TrangNK/CARE

Vietnamese entrepreneur Le Hong Van owns two factories and employs between seven and ten staff, dependent on the season. Photo: TrangNK/CARE

The moment Le Hong Van realized she would have to take control of her own story was when her husband told her that if she wanted to set up a business, she was on her own.

And, he said, if Van did go ahead and set up the business on her own, she would still have to be the sole family caregiver.

“When I started the business my husband told me I had to do both the business and the childcare,” she said. “He doesn’t care much about my business. He grew up in a traditional family where his mother stayed at home to take care of the family, and this is the fixed mindset he has about the role of women.”

But Van had realized long before this moment that women know how to do more than just take care of their families.

“Caregivers” vs. “Breadwinners”

“My dream is to live by my own core values," Van says. "I wanted to return to my hometown so that I could give other people jobs, especially women. I want to help people to live their lives and have sustainable jobs and a steady income." Photo: TrangNK/CARE

Van first started cooking and selling dried fish at the age of five, during village celebrations in Bac Giang.

“It was in my blood to run a business,” she says.

Still, Van struggled to persuade her family that leaving the security of her job in banking for the uncertainty of her own small business was the right decision.

Van also faced the challenge of deeply entrenched ideas about “caregivers” and “breadwinners” in Vietnamese households, the same ideas that recent research published by CARE has shown are holding women back from doing what they know how to do.

In Vietnam, CARE found that 80% of men and 60% of women agreed that businesswomen should be the main childcare giver, despite the additional pressure of running a business. And 76.6% of those aged over 51 agreed that men should be the main breadwinner for their households.

Also in Vietnam, mothers-in-law were revealed as the staunch upholders of the norm related to childcare, the ones who would most disapprove if the man does more childcare than the woman.

Surprisingly this was followed closely by the woman entrepreneur herself.

Van, who is now running a successful business producing and selling food products, specializing in healthy crackers, wants to set a different example to their two sons.

“I want my two boys to see me as a female role model – a woman who can live a good life, run a good business and not worry about financial burdens.”

Van wants to show not just her sons but the world that women know how to run a business.

A new generation with new ideas

One bright spot in CARE’s research was that 63.3% of 26-50 year-olds disagreed with the norm around men being the breadwinner, showing a more progressive response by the younger cohort toward traditional gender roles, so Van’s sons are part of a new generation that could help change how things have been done.

“Women in Vietnam are often framed as only being able to take care of the home,” Van says.

“I want my boys to see that women are capable of doing many things beyond that.”

#WomenKnowHow International Women's Day

Through CARE’s Ignite program, supported by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Van has developed her skills in financial management, received intensive coaching and has been connected to new networks. These have proved essential, and she often turns to other producers in her network for expert advice on food production and technical expertise.

“I have learned a lot from being part of the Ignite network and it has opened up many doors for me.”

Van’s determination to follow her dream and constantly improve her skills and knowledge is evident. She offers advice to other women who are thinking of starting a business: “Be bold and prepare yourself financially and emotionally, as there are many obstacles ahead. Get advice from others with solid experience. If you aren’t successful, start again.”

CARE’s Ignite program in Pakistan, Peru and Vietnam supports entrepreneurs, particularly women, to grow their enterprises through access to finance, improved skills, and by challenging some of these gender norms.

Like Van, Nguyen Thi Thu is challenging the status quo in Vietnam with a social enterprise focused on organic farming. This is her journey.

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