This paper examines change and continuity of gender ideologies in contemporary Vietnam via study men’s and women’s perceptions of and practices in division of household labour. Since households are considered “gender factories”, in which, human beings create and sustain their identities as men and women (Berk 1985), investigating degrees of men’s and women’s involvement and their attitudes towards their roles in doing household tasks can reveal gender ideologies perpetuated in a certain society. Drawing on qualitative data collected from in-depth interviews with 6 men and 6 women of various demographic features in Vietnam, I show how household labour has mainly been regulated by a gender-role ideology which highlights men’s and women’s distinctive and unequal positions in the domestic sphere. Despite women’s higher educational attainments, increasing participation in the labour market and men’s greater engagement in doing domestic chores and child tending, Vietnamese women are still doing a majority of housework and highly expected to fulfil their traditional role as mothers in addition to another modern role as employees. Persistence of Confucianism which is supported by Socialist ideology is the root cause for continuity of gender role ideology in Vietnamese society.
Key words: Division of household labour, gender-role ideology, conservative and progressive gender ideology, Confucianism
Division of household labour (DHL) is one of the dimensions that has been researched most in gender, family and marriage, noticeably by Berk and Berk (1979), Kamo (1988), Blair and Johnson (1992), Kaufman (2000), and Cunningham (2008). As claimed by Lavee and Katz (2002) and (Xu and Lai 2004), there are close interrelations between gender ideologies and labour division in the domestic sphere. According to Kroska and Elman (2006), most gender ideologies in the world follow two main patterns, conservative and egalitarian. Conservative beliefs highlight men’s and women’s unequal roles in the domestic sphere, in which, men are rewarded with positions of decision makers and breadwinners while women are undervalued with positions of mothers and homemakers. Egalitarian beliefs, in contrast, assign equal roles to men and women in the domestic life. Thus, studying men’s and women’s attitudes toward and practices in doing household tasks can reveal whether gender ideologies of a particular context are egalitarian or conservative (Greenstein 1996, Lavee and Katz 2002, Chesters et al. 2009).
Global empirical studies over the past decades identify that there have been significant changes in gender beliefs towards egalitarianism in western countries as men have spent more time on doing domestic work and childcare while women are increasingly doing paid jobs (Cohen 2004, Legerski and Cornwall 2010, Thebaud 2010, Chesley 2011). Those changes are main caused by women’s economic empowerment and their higher educational attainments (Boserup et al. 2007, Dorious and Alwin 2010). However, changes in DHL have not clearly been evidenced in the developing nations when women are still in charge of most domestic chores and childcare in addition to doing paid work (Xu and Lai 2004, Zuo and Bian 2004, Kroska and Elman 2006, Civenttini and Glass 2008, Teerawichitchainan et al. 2010)
Vietnam is a developing country, which has been historically influenced by Confucianism for thousands of years. Confucian ideology locates men and women in different opposite positions in families and societies (Nguyen 2013). Confucianism privileges men by considering them “the strong sex” with high power and statuses in the familial lives. Accordingly, men are supposed to do important tasks such as earning income and making key decisions in households. In contrast, Confucian ideology discriminates women as “the weak sex” who needs protection from the “strong sex”; they should be only responsible for subordinate tasks as housewives and caregivers (Vu 1991). Thus, household labour between spouses in Vietnam has been mainly allocated based on gender role ideology (GRI) which is constituted and sustained by Confucianism.
Notwithstanding, due to impact of globalization and economic development having occurred robustly in Vietnam, Confucianism is being challenged by a consumerist culture, western egalitarian ideologies, and women’s right and liberation movements and women’s economic empowerment (Long et al. 2000, Gammeltoft 2002, Knodel et al. 2004). According to Teerawichitchainan et al.(2010), there has been a slight shift toward egalitarianism in DHL in Vietnamese families since men are increasingly participating in doing domestic chores and caring for kids. However, that shift has not strong enough to reduce women’s volumes of domestic tasks. In contrast, women are being more burdened with triple roles as housewives, child tenders and paid workers (Schuler et al. 2006). Meanwhile, several previous studies, notably by Knodel et al. (2004) and Le (1995) indicate that women’s more engagement in paid jobs and higher educational attainments have raised their positions in the domestic sphere, including urging men to share domestic chores and child rearing with them. The contradictions in available studies on (un)interrelated influences between GRI and DHL in Vietnam are the main reason for me to post a research question: Is there any change in gender role ideology in allocation of household labour in contemporary Vietnam?
Understanding gender ideologies in DHL is significant because from the academic perspective, the study contributes to enriching the global and local literature on gender and family. From perspective of development and policy formulation, the study helps to draw a picture of gender equality in the domestic sphere in contemporary Vietnam, which may provide useful input for further project/program design and law/policy formation related to family and gender equality of the Vietnamese Government.
Research data and methods
This paper builds on a larger research titled “Understanding gender and marriage ideologies in contemporary Vietnam” – a study focused on uncovering change and continuity of Vietnamese people’s beliefs on marriage, with a focus on their perceptions of the importance of marriage to Vietnamese personhood and marital infidelity in 2015. The results of the study have been used to develop a minor thesis, which is served for partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Master of Development Studies in the University of Melbourne. The data collection of the research was divided into two stages: (i) observations of real-life accounts and online discussions about marriage and family posted by members in the Revelation section of an online forum for Vietnamese women, Webtretho [literally in English, a website on children’s matters]; (ii) in-depth interviews (IDIs) with 12 Webtretho’s members who have been actively participating in giving comments and advice to the real-life accounts. For the purpose of this paper, I only draw on the results of IDIs with 6 men and 6 women[i] who I selected on purpose to ensure a demographic diversity for the study. All IDIs were conducted between July and August 2015 via social media tools such as Skype, Facebook, Yahoo Messenger, Gmail or Viber.
The data analysis part that follows is structured on three key elements of women’s and men’s roles in the domestic sphere: (i) income earning; (ii) household chores; and (iii) child care and tending. As the aim of the study is to trace whether Vietnamese people’s beliefs in gender roles have been shifted toward egalitarianism or not in DHL, the data analyses are not only limited to respondents’ gender attitudes toward DHL but also extended to their practices in the familial lives. In order to explain for the change and continuity of GRI in DHL, I also examine socio-economic, cultural and social factors that have contributed to that change or continuity.
Income earning and breadwinning role
Available studies on gender and family in Vietnam, notably Houtrat and Lemercinier (1984), Vu (1991), Pham (1999), and Teerawichitchainan et al. (2010) indicate that Vietnamese men continue keeping their traditional role as breadwinners in households. In my IDIs about people’s perceptions of gender roles in families and their aspirations for ideal husbands/wives, most interviewees reported the same response that men should hold their breadwinning position in families; in selection of potential male partners for marriage, women’s most important criterion is men’s earning capacity.
“…In my opinion, the most important role of a man in a family is financial provision…I endorse a popular saying that “man is responsible for building a house and women is in charge of making it home….”
(Hoa, male, 31 year old, Hung Yen province)
…I need a husband who can be a breadwinner in the familial life. Breadwinning is related to not only men’s capacity of subsidizing their families but also their strong will, strategic mind, decisiveness at work and abilities of leading their families well…”
(Trang, female, 30 years old, Hanoi)
Expectations of men as breadwinners in Vietnam are based on gender norms, which have socially and culturally constructed and sustained by Confucianism (Vu 1991, Long et al. 2000). Confucian ideology supports an ideology of gender binary, in which, men are physically and spiritually defined as the “strong sex”, which represents Yang characteristics such as brightness, heat, upper position, movement, outward and excitement or masculinities (Louie 2002). In contrast, women are depicted as the “weak sex” which is associated with Ying features such as darkness, coldness, lower position, rest, inward, and inhibition or femininities (ibid). Therefore, women and men cannot be the same in spousal relations; women must be inferior to men to sustain stability and harmony of families (Jamieson 1993, Vu 2008). Regarding gender roles in the domestic sphere, Confucianism, based on gender binary, assigns distinctive household tasks to men and women. Therefore, household tasks are divided in relation to men’s and women’s characteristics of masculinities and femininities. Because men are the “strong sex”, they are rewarded with key tasks and higher positions in households such as income earning and decision-making. Meanwhile, women are the “weak sex”; they should hold subordinate work and lower statuses in families such as mothers, homemakers and dependants.
Nonetheless, in this study, I discover that though men’s breadwinning role is sustained by Confucianism and it is hard to change it in a short-term, there are significant changes in practices of that role between men and women within households. The shift is evidenced by women’s increasing participation in the labour market to do paid jobs and a number of them are getting higher income than their partners. According to Vietnam Labour force and Employment Survey conducted by GSO (2012), the proportion of Vietnamese women joining in the labour market was 48.6%, only 2.8% lower than the rate of men (51.4%). In my IDIs, all married male interviewees reported that their wives were having their own paid jobs and their income had remarkably contributed to their household income; whereas, all married female respondents also said that they had their own paid work and their husband no longer solely hold the breadwinning role.
“…In my family, both my husband and I have to work to get income for our families…As you know, the life in urban areas is really expensive; thus, it is really challenging if only my husband works while I do nothing to contribute to our income…”
(Chi, female, 27 years old, Hanoi)
Several male respondents even admitted that the actual breadwinners in their families are their wives as their jobs are not as good and stable as their wives’.
“… My wife is working for a private foreign company. Her salary is even higher than mine. Though I am a university lecturer, my income is modest and the key income source is from my wife’s work…”
(Thiet, male, 32 years old, Hanoi)
It is noted that all two unmarried men in my IDIs expressed that they loved to marry the women who had better education and could earn better income than them since they were aware that they did not have enough qualification to get stable and high-income jobs.
“….Because my current job is not stable, my wife should have a good job with high income to subsidize our family….”
(Tai, male, 28 years old, Hochiminh City)
Governmental incentive policies on promoting women’s participation in education and robust development of Vietnam’s labour market have created more opportunities for women to attain high education and get stable and high-income jobs (WB 2011). Therefore, Vietnamese men are facing severe competitions with not only other men but also qualified women to obtain good jobs, i.e., they have more difficulties to fulfil their financial provision roles. According to Boserup et al. (2007), once women’s economic statuses in families are improved, will their power in families be redistributed. As a result, women would enjoy more equality to their husbands in the familial lives. Notwithstanding, in Vietnamese context, women’s economic empowerment and higher education do not automatically lead to gender equality in the domestic sphere. In contrasts, women have become more disadvantaged when they have to fulfil triple roles as mothers, housekeepers and employees at the same time. Vietnamese men have, though, been aware that they are losing their breadwinning role in the hand of women due to economic changes, their positions and power in families are still highly sustained by Confucianism.
The second central dimension which needs to examine in DHL is how men and women perceive and fulfil their responsibilities for doing domestic chores in families. According to Greenstein (1996), if you want to observe whether gender ideologies have shifted to egalitarianism or not, you can examine a number of hours that a husband spends on doing domestic work compared to his wife and the types of work that he does. Previous studies on gender division of labour in Vietnam such as Knodel et al.(2004) and Teerawichitchainan et al. (2010) indicate that men only perform around 20% of the household work volume while women are responsible for the remaining one. Those data reveal that there is gender inequality in DHL when women continue doing most domestic tasks while men’s engagement are highly modest compared to women.
This study applies a qualitative research method; thus, I am unable to calculate an average number of hours that a man or a woman spends on domestic tasks in a family. Notwithstanding, through questioning whether men’s and women’s support for a model of women who keep the breadwinning role and spend less time on housework and childcare, I am able to uncovered that women are not supported to devote their lives and time to paid work as their central roles are highly expected at home.
“…In my family, my wife is the person doing most housework such as cooking, cleaning, washing… I do not oppose my wife to have her own job; however, that job should not be too hard and consume much her time so she can still take care of our family…”
(Hoa, male, 31 years old, Hung Yen province)
Although Vietnamese men have been aware that their wives are busier and harder in sustaining both their families and paid jobs, IDI male respondents do not support the women who spend most of their time on paid work and let the families in their or domestic workers’ hands. They believe that to what extent a woman succeeds in her career, she is not allowed to ignore her family if she wants to lead a happy and harmonized family. Schuler et al. (2006), in her study on construction of gender in Vietnam, also indicates similar results. According to Schuler (2006), Vietnamese society is building a new form of GRI for women by combining Confucianism and Socialist Model. Schuler (2006) criticized that the Government of Vietnam has indirectly been creating deeper gender inequalities in the domestic sphere via advocating for a model of modern women who should fulfil all three roles: employees, homemakers and mothers at the same time. It is become more critical when Vietnam Women’s Union, the national entity representing for Vietnamese women’s voices, rights and benefits, has been the leading agency in running this “three criteria” campaign under the direction of the Government. The campaign has created social perception that women are only recognized in the domestic sphere unless they can meet all three those criteria. Meanwhile, Vietnamese men stand out of this campaign and naturally become beneficiaries.
According to Teerawichitchainan et al. (2010), when tracing changes in gender role ideology in Vietnam, it is needed to explore men’s and women’s engagement in tending and caring their children. In his previous study, Teerawichitchainan (2010) indicates that Vietnamese men participate in caring and raising their kis much more than doing domestic chores. However, their degrees of engagement are quite different between children’s pre-school ad schooling stages. At the pre-school stage, Vietnamese people often prioritize children’s physical and personality development; thus, children need caring and training from their mothers. Vietnamese women are considered as the “keepers” of morality of the whole families (Nguyen 2013); therefore, they are the most suitable candiates in training personalities for children when they are small. Furthermore, as their gender roles assigned by society are caregivers and housewives, they are more skillful than men in cooking and looking after children’s physical bodies. Nonetheless, in a higher level, schooling stage, Teerawichitchainan (2010) identifies that men engage more than women in assisting their children’s cognitive development. As Confucianism assumes that men are better than women in both physical and cognitive capabilities (Louie 2002), men should be responsible for tutoring their children at the schooling stage to have better study results.
In my IDIs with 12 respondents, the results are rather different from Teerawichitchainan’s findings which are mentioned above. Male and female IDI interviewees reported that they and their husbands/wives had all actively engaged in taking care of the kids from the pre-school to schooling stage. Thiet, a father of 3 year-old daughter living in Hanoi shared with me that his wife and he was very equal in taking care of their daughther. If his wife feeds her, he will take his daughter to have a shower. If his wife plays with her after the dinning time, he will read a story or talk to his daughter before she goes to bed. In the school stage, despite fathers’ slightly more engagement in tutoring their kids in study, mothers still play a significant role in training and supervising their children’s physicial, personility and cognitive development. As children are considered an economic investment of parents for their own ages (Gallup 1995) in addition to their important mission to continue fathers’ family lineages (Guilmoto et al. 2009), Vietnamese parents have often taken great efforts to create favourable conditions for their children’s development. Therefore, in child care and tending, fathers’ and mothers’ gender roles are equally important. However, due to some effects of Confucianism, there are still some biases in mothers’ and fathers’ roles in assisting children’s physical, personality and cognitive development.
Limitations and implications of the study
This study has only focused on DHL as a signifier to examine the change and continuity of gender ideologies in contemporary Vietnam. Nonetheless, in order to have a more persuasive and evidenced conclusion that change or continuity, other dimensions of the domestic sphere such as marital sexuality, attitudes towards marriage, reproduction, premarital sex, gender beliefs in raising children, effects of gender ideologies on marital quality and consequences (divorce or separation) should be further studied.
Due to limited time and financial resource, this study only applied a quality research method, IDIs, which do not allow a calculation on the number of hours spent by men and women on domestic chores; whereas, over the past 10 years, there has not been any official study which estimates the number of hours spent by men and women on domestic chores in Vietnam. Therefore, I recommend that a national survey on family and marriage, in which, a component focuses on the number of hours used by men and women to do domestic work should be further conducted to have more rigorous data to trace the change or continuity of gender ideologies in Vietnam.
This study uses the results of IDIs with 6 men and 6 women of the project titled “Understanding gender and marriage ideologies in contemporary Vietnam” to discover the shift and stability of gender ideologies in DHL in Vietnam. The study results indicate that although there are significant changes in men’s and women’s breadwinning role in household income earning and men’s active involvement in child care and tending, there is still a high persistence of GRI in DHL in Vietnamese society. The study has exposed two new findings, which are different from the previous studies on DHL in Vietnam. The first one is that women’s economic empowerment and higher educational attainments have not led to their higher statuses in the domestic sphere. That results is contradict to the arguments of Dorious and Alwin (2010) and Boserup et al. (2007) that women’s economic empowerment and higher education can bring equal positions and power between men and women in the domestic sphere. The second finding is that men’s engagement in child care and tending are significant in both the pre-school and schooling stage, which contradicts to the conclusion of Teerawichitchainan et al. (2010) that Vietnamese men are merely active in tending their children at the schooling stage but inactive in caring and teaching their kids at the pre-school one. From the analyses of all IDI results, I summarize that changes in gender DHL do not significantly contribute to changes of GRI in Vietnamese society.
[i] The interviewees are all Vietnamese coming from different regions of Vietnam and belonging to different ethnicities (Kinh, Tay and Tho). Their ages range from 25 to 40 and are both married and unmarried. In particular, the respondents are doing different jobs such as housewives, teachers, businessmen, engineers, civil servants, clerks, human resource and marketing staff. Regarding educational/professional attainment, all the interviewees have completed general education. Several have got secondary professional or vocational diplomas. Others have bachelor or master degrees. In order to protect respondents’ privacy as regulated by the ethical rules of the University of Melbourne, pseudonyms are used to all IDI respondents when analysing the study results.
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M.A Nguyen Thi Hiem