Over the last several decades, women have made strides in the corporate world, in many cases launching their own enterprises and some taking the helm at Fortune 500 companies. Despite such progress, sexism remains a significant hurdle in business, said Phuong Uyen Tran, a Vietnamese business executive and author of “Competing with Giants: How One Family-Owned Company Took on the Multinationals and Won.”
“Sexist attitudes are certainly well entrenched in Asia,” Tran said, who is deputy CEO of THP Beverage Group, the leading Vietnamese beverage company founded by her father, Tran Qui Thanh. It is the largest privately-owned soft drink company in Vietnam.
Having her own experiences with sexual harassment and gender inequality, Tran said she identifies with the #MeToo movement that swept the United States. Not only has she had to deal with inappropriate behavior by businessmen during meetings, but she is also constantly asked when she will marry. She has even started her own #StandTaller campaign to combat gender bias and promote better dialogue between the sexes.
“It’s a real battle to strive to eliminate the structural sexism that exists in society,” Tran said. “One of the challenges we face is that gender stereotypes start very early.”
Tran, a millennial herself, has advice for women rising up the corporate ladder.
- Don’t Behave Like a Man. To compete with men, some women might believe they should act like men, which can translate into being abrasive and domineering in conversations. Tran says that’s not how women highlight their natural leadership qualities. “I think there is great strength in a woman’s negotiating skills and ability to listen,” Tran said. “There is plenty of research that demonstrates how a company’s operational abilities improve when there are more women on the board.”
- Stand Up and Be Counted. Tran cautioned that even a woman who holds a significant position in a company sometimes can be expected to perform menial duties, such as taking notes or making coffee, especially if she’s the only woman in a meeting. Avoid that trap, she said, and certainly don’t volunteer. “It’s best not to offer to make everyone else a cup of coffee until you reach a senior enough position where this is viewed as a positive gesture, rather than a given,” Tran said. Speaking of note taking, a supervisor once asked a friend of Tran’s to do just that. She declined, telling the supervisor it’s always women who are asked to take notes and until they refuse it will stay that way. This is one example of ways women can stand taller in the boardroom.
- Seek Male Allies. In order to dismantle sexism, we need men to help. “Women cannot eliminate sexism on their own,” Tran said. The good news is that more and more men are eager to do this. Tran offers five words she calls “boardroom bridge builders” – Do I have your support? “Those five words – do I have your support – are critical because the create unity not separation. They encourage support,” Tran said. “For me, in the boardroom, I have found these five words to help push forward in the most challenging times.”
When it comes to gender equality, Tran does her part by ensuring that THP Beverage Group offers women the same opportunities as men.
“We have 10 senior directors and four are women,” she said. “My sister is also a deputy CEO, and she and I try to set a very strong example for women leaders in our company. We work to boost the number of female employees overall, as well. It helps that our father has never discriminated between men and women. It did not matter to him if we were sons or daughters. He just wants the right person for the job.”