Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf (second from left) meets REE Corporation CEO Nguyen Thi Mai Thanh, one of Vietnam's most famous businesswomen.
Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf (second from left) meets REE Corporation CEO Nguyen Thi Mai Thanh, one of Vietnam's most famous businesswomen.

Vietnam has joined a global business network in a push to boost the number of women in its corporate boardrooms.

Female executives, along with UK officials and a headhunting firm, gathered here last week to launch the Vietnam branch of the Inspire network. The business forum connects women across nine countries through “networking events, coaching and peer-to-peer support,” according to Inspire’s brochure.

“I think access to this network will help Vietnamese women gain experience,” said Nguyen Thi Hong, vice chair of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee and one of the country’s more prominent female leaders.

Inspire aims to increase women’s participation at the executive level by 5 percentage points in five years, said Truong Hong Tam, who directs the Vietnam operations of Harvey Nash, the recruitment firm that founded the Inspire network.

Vietnamese women occupy 33 percent of senior management jobs and 30 percent of board posts, business advisory Grant Thornton wrote in a 2013 report.

“This number needs to be higher,” said Nguyen Thi Mai Thanh, chair and CEO of REE Corporation. Thanh is one of the most famous women executives in Vietnam.

She was speaking at the Inspire launch, which was timed with a visit by Fiona Woolf, the lord mayor of London, a ceremonial role that involves traveling to promote trade.

As an Inspire board advisor, Woolf helped kick off the Vietnam chapter with representatives from the UK consulate. Woolf is the second woman to become lord mayor of London, and she uses her visibility to support gender equality.

“If everybody in the workplace comes from the same background, where are the new ideas going to come from?” she said in a speech.

Kirti Lad directs Harvey Nash’s Hong Kong office and coordinates Inspire events there.  She said the meetings let CEOs and board members “share war stories” and learn from one another’s mistakes. 

Lad and Tam agreed governments should get involved to establish quotas for female executives, as some European countries do.

“In Asia, there’s no quota system, there are targets,” Lad said. “It’s an aspirational number to achieve.”

But she added that Hong Kong uses a “comply or explain” approach, so that companies that don’t have a certain gender balance are held accountable.

Mai Thanh also would like to see a quota in place. After studying engineering in East Germany, she joined REE, a major state-owned enterprise that makes refrigerators and other appliances, where her 30-year tenure was seen as a pioneering example for businesswomen. On Monday, she said much work remains to be done.

“Gender bias still exists in Vietnamese society,” she said.

As Mai Thanh prepares to retire, she said is preoccupied with the next generation of female leaders who will succeed her. In addition to the corporate gender gap, women make up less than 10 percent of leadership roles in government.

“In business, leaders still prioritize their sons in passing on their business,” she said. “Men still dominate most, if not all, government ministries, and the chance for women to get promoted is small.”