Breaking through the glass ceiling

08 Mar 2010

Nguyen Thi Thanh Hang, who is 33 years old and from Ha Noi, is one of the first women to have benefitted from a new UNDP project to empower talented women working in the public sector. Hang, who has been working at the State Bank of Viet Nam for nine years, is now pursuing an MPhil in development studies at the University of Cambridge, under a scholarship provided by UNDP and the Cambridge Overseas Trust. She expects to complete her degree by June and will then return to the State Bank – ready to take on a senior position.

Viet Nam has a relatively good track record – especially compared to other countries in the region – of empowering women. Extensive legislation and policy which supports gender equality is in place and Viet Nam, for instance, has more women in parliament than the UK and Canada. Yet, traditional attitudes continue to persist and there are still very few women in leadership positions. Across the country, women continue to face a glass ceiling in both the private and public sectors.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with financial and technical support from the UNDP Viet Nam country office last year embarked on a project to support talented women working in the public sector – helping them to break down the glass ceiling. The project seeks to identify ways to empower these women to deal with the new development challenges facing Viet Nam and to prepare them to take on leadership roles. With almost half of working women employed in the public sector supporting these future female leaders can have far-reaching and positive effects. Female policy makers can also help ensure that laws and policies include a broad range of views and that public resources are allocated in a way that addresses a range of public concerns. They are also important role models to inspire and mentor others.

Various strategies and policy recommendations to increase the number of women in senior public sector positions are now being developed and trialed. For instance, women are provided with further training, studying, research and networking opportunities to help them develop leadership and policy making skills in order to advance their career.

One of the first results of the project has been a series of scholarships, set up in collaboration with the Cambridge Overseas Trust. These scholarships give talented women – like Hang – the opportunity to study one-year MA degrees at the University of Cambridge. In 2009, two women were selected for the programme and another six women will be given the opportunity between now and 2012 – with the contribution from the Cambridge Overseas Trust worth over US$1 million.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Hang says: “This scholarship has given me an amazing opportunity to study at the legendary University of Cambridge. While here, I am able to tap into a global network and access high-quality knowledge which will help me develop my career and take on a leadership position once I return.”    
As part of the project, women are also given specific leadership skills training. In March five women, all in senior public sector positions, will participate in a mentoring and leadership conference in the UK, where UNDP Administrator Helen Clark is one of the keynote speakers.

Another part of the project focuses on generating research which can help influence the national policy debate and planning. Quantitative and qualitative research on the number and profile of women in leadership positions, as well as the obstacles they face, will be available shortly and will be discussed with high-level policy makers over the course of the year. This research will also feed into Viet Nam’s next Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women and Socio-Economic Development Plan – both of which are being developed at the moment.

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Photo: Nguyen Thi Thanh Hang (second left), together with (from left to right) Setsuko Yamazaki, UNDP country director, Pham Hoai Anh, another Cambridge scholar, and Nguyen Nguyet Nga, deputy national project director and director general in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.