Understanding women leadership inVietnamese colectivist culture

Ph.D Tran Mai Dong ( Department of Research Administration - International Relations, University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City), Master. Le Thi Thu Thao (University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City)


This research is to answer the question how multiple stakeholders perceive women leadership. This research also explores different perceptions of women leadership in collectivist cultures. This research is expected to help understand more deeply women leadership perceptions in collectivist cultures like Vietnam.

Keywords: Collectivist culture, Vietnam, women leadership.

1. Introduction

Emerging economies in Asia have played an increasingly important role in the global economy. As a result, there is a necessity to learn more about how business operates in Asia, particularly in term of leadership, one of the major determinants of organizational success. Though leader emergence has received attention in recent years, the emergence of women leaders has been understudied in general, and in cross-cultural leadership research in particular. In the context of global economy, Vietnam, with collectivist culture, is not an exception when women's participation in decision-making at various levels and multiple fields is also increasing encouraged through specific strategies and policies. The purpose of this study is to highlight trends in women’s representation in society, provide an overview of the framework related to women’s leadership and to discuss the challenges and barriers faced by women in collectivist culture like Vietnam.

2. Vietnamese women leadership and culture

2.1. Culture

Culture is firstly defined by Edward Taylor in his work entitled Primitive Culture (1871) “Culture taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capacities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Bidney, 1959). Since Taylor’s first definition, multitude definitions are proposed by researchers. Culture is also as a part of our social interaction in life is deeply connected to factors of the culture such as symbolism, family interaction, values, beliefs, and events that result from common experiences of members of collectives and are transmitted across age generations (House et al., 2002) in the nations to which we belong. Culture is extremely diverse and complex to define and understand but it is a main factor to identify particular groups enduring over time.

2.2. Leader, leadership theories and trends

2.2.1. Leadership

Yukl (2010) presents a compilation of representative definitions of leadership from 1957 up to 1999 as below:

Table 1: Definitions of leadership (Yukl, 2010)

Leadership is...


“exercised when persons … mobilize … institutional, political, psychological, and other resources so as to arouse, engage, and satisfy the motives of followers” (Burns, 1978)


“the ability to step outside the culture… to start evolutionary change processes that are more adaptive” (Schein, 1986)


the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organization…” (House et al., 2002)

Source: Yukl (2010)

It makes clear that most of the leadership definitions assume that “leadership is a process whereby intentional influence is exerted by one person over others in order to guide, structure and facilitate organizational activities and relationships” (Yukl, 2010).

2.2.2. Leadership theories and trends Trait approach

Leadership research in the direction of trait approach is one of the earliest approaches in the early 20th century. Trait theories emphasize the personal qualities of leaders and focus on attributes that distinguish leaders from non-leaders. Three main types of traits were mostly studied in leadership research including: (1) physical factors (height, appearance, age, etc.), (2) aspects of personality (self-esteem, dominance, emotional stability, conservatism, etc.), and (3) aptitudes (general intelligence, fluency of speech, creativity, etc.). However, there was still no evidence of universal leadership traits until now. Furthermore, although many research agreed with the point that leader’s characteristics were from birth and does not change over time, some scholars like Stogdill (1948) argued that “the pattern of personal characteristics of the leader must bear some relevant relationship to the characteristics, activities, and goals of followers”. Therefore, this approach ignored to take another significant factor into consideration: the impact of situation such as mental level, skills or interests of followers. Style approach

From the late 1940s onwards, the stream of leadership research shifted to leader behavior instead of leader traits. Employee-orientation and production-orientation are considered as two perspectives of leaders’ behaviors in this approach. Nonetheless, researchers realized some issues limited of this style approach in the 1960s. Research found that there was no link between leaders’ behaviors with organizational outcomes such as job satisfaction and productivity. Moreover, once again, situational variables were still dismissed and researchers doubted that whether a particular leadership style was always superior or not (Tran et al., 2016). Situational approach

Another approach considered as the adaptive approach in leadership studies is the situational approach which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. This approach encourages leaders to take stock of their team members, weigh the many variables in their workplace and choose the leadership style that best fits their goals and circumstances. However, before the 1980s, researchers were less interested in this perspective because leadership has been become an inseparable part of management (Tran et al., 2016). Moreover, an increasing perception of such matters is more obvious in the next part of leadership literature. Modernist leadership approach

To distinguish the differences between management and leadership conceptualization in regard to motivate followers, many theories and models in modernist leadership approach were proposed in the mid-1980s (Tran et al., 2016). Several of typical leadership in this approach were transformational leadership, charismatic leadership, leader – member exchange, ethical leadership, romance of leadership. In 1990, gender differences in leadership styles between men and women has been reported by many researchers and female managers has been considered as participative, democratic leaders in positive aspect. Furthermore, there is an increasingly trend in research that women are believed to perform more transformational leadership behaviors than their male colleagues, and this is equated with effective leadership. Postmodernist leadership approach

The surge of research on leadership in the 21st century has been remarkable. The postmodernist perspective has no longer focused on individual person, emphasizing the role of groups and leadership means something many people can do; the relationship between leaders and followers was not a central point of these studies. Leaders in the postmodernist era cope with a lot of challenges such as distributed work in different time zone, local work demands the immediate attention of leaders and followers, high pressure to pursue local priorities and seek common goals (Tran et al., 2016).

The aim of this section to review the theories and trends of leadership and then have an overview of leadership. The study has examined on how leadership has been evolving by discussing significantly areas of inquiry that represent current trends and approaches in leadership research and explored how leaders are formed and developed through discussion of significant areas of inquiry that represent current trends and approaches in leadership research. Moreover, the application of Western leadership theories to collectivist culture like Vietnam, particularly women leadership, is a key factor in ongoing research on leadership than before.

2.3. Culture and leadership

Culture is a complex definition to conceptualize but it has a strong influence in many facets of any society and leadership is also not an exception. In particular, national culture affect leadership in a different way and leadership is not common which can vary based on gender or culture. The cultural values affect the choices people make about the manner in which the way they will lead. Therefore, national culture has a huge impact on leadership styles, effectiveness as well as leaders’ gender role identities.

Besides, the manipulation of culture is one of the mainly essential functions of leadership. Byrne and Bradley (2007) stated that leaders use cultural values as standards to select and justify personal behaviors and decisions or evaluate people and events. Therefore, there is a close connection between leadership and culture that make a difference in leadership styles from one country to another.

In summary, differences between culture including values, behaviors and attitude of individuals have a significant influence on leadership. Therefore, when studying about leadership, culture is always an important factor to consider and research.

2.4. Women in leadership positions

Women have become leaders in different society throughout history, and despite stereotypes, the concept of leadership is not inherently masculine. Although women have made progress in leadership positions, the gender gap continues to be a prevalent issue. In the recent research of LinkedIn through analyzing their profile date from 2001 to 2016, they found out while overall female representation varies from industry to industry, the leadership gap is universal. Even in the industries in which women are overrepresented: take healthcare, where women make up 62% of the workforce, but only 49% of leadership positions (a leadership gap of 13%). However, major changes are coming into existence in terms of the roles of women in society an organization worldwide from 2008 with many positive signs. In both political and business areas, the leadership gap of women has been narrowed and women has been promoted more because companies may have been more motivated to improve leadership diversity as they attempted to rebound from recession 2007 - 2008. It is clearly to see that the world has witnessed a constructive progress for women leadership improvement.

In fact, it is obvious to see that women have been empower more than before in the field of leadership. According to Fortune 500 in 2017, there are 32 female CEOs on the list, meaning that 6.4% of the U.S.’s biggest companies are run by women and this is the highest proportion of female CEOs in the 63-year history of the Fortune 500.

2.5. Culture and women leadership

Women has been increasingly held leadership positions in all field of the world so scholars gradually began to turn to study the relationship between national culture and women leadership. For instance, in an Asian country like Taiwan, Chao & Tian (2011) carried out the study examining the impact of national culture on female leadership styles of leaders in Rotary clubs in the United State and Taiwan. Based on the findings, the United State culture is lower in masculinity, life-long relationship and the US Rotarian have more expectations of female leaders to focus on transformational leadership and give the lowest score to female leaders using the laissez-faire style. In contrary to the United State, Taiwan cultural dimensions are characterized by collectivism, masculinity and life-long relationship. Therefore, when a female leader shows her masculinity, she has a tendency to be a laissez-faire leader that is against the cultural norms for masculine members to be led by women (Chao & Tian, 2011).

2.6. Women leadership in Vietnam

In contemporary Vietnam, there has been significant economic advancement for women. However, there is quite a few research on women leadership. Therefore, the author would like to figure out multiple perceptions of women leadership in the business context of Vietnam. In the next section, the author analyzed barriers and constraints of women leadership in general and in this section, the author would like to go deeper into cultural barriers, especially the gender prejudice in collectivist cultures like Vietnam.

Vietnam has a collectivist culture based on Confucianism so men play an important role in all sectors of life and women are often discriminated against men. Although the government has made many efforts to implement a number of policies to improve and maintain gender equality, discrimination has been still existed in many parts of Vietnam. For example, Vietnam has a number of policies in place that promote women’s leadership, such the Law on Gender Equality (2006) and the National Strategy on Gender Equality (2011-2020). Furthermore, when a draft version of the law was published relating to women deputies in 2007, National Assembly Deputy Nguyen Duc Dung thought that if 30 percent of women deputies in National Assembly are defined in the law, then the government forces male deputies to implement them, but these women deputies’ abilities and standards are not sufficient, so the carded quality would be affected (Truong, 2008). It also means that Vietnamese women are not highly appreciated in higher positions because everyone, especially men think that women are lack of abilities than men. Therefore, structural barriers of women have been formed from that such as discrimination in education and employment and lack of training and advancement opportunities for women.

In addition, women are expected to give birth, breastfeed, care for husbands and elderly relatives, and even do other unpaid heavenly mandate roles in addition to their full-time employment. Women are educated in these above things as the role model of ideal womanhood and this leads to limit women’s participation in leadership and somehow women also self-consciously plan their lives in accordance with this model.

Thus, it is really difficult for women in Vietnam to choose between family and work because they have multiple roles to balance including roles in society and business, roles in the family and the heavenly mandate. The prevailing norms of femininity and the heavenly mandate may fuel an inferiority complex, which is another great and dangerous challenge to women leadership (Truong, 2008).

2.7. Collectivist culture in Vietnam

According to Columbia University, due to the thousand years of Chinese domination, Vietnam was heavily influenced by Chinese culture in politics, politics, social ethics and Confucian ethics, and art. Vietnam is considered part of the East Asian cultural field. In the global study of culture and management, Hofstede (1991) 's structures of power distance (hierarchy) and collectivism were discussed and studied extensively in the context of Confucian societies. Hofstede (1991) proposed the collectivism and individualism constructs as representing opposite ends of a normative continuum. This dimension describes the extent to which the identity of people within a society reflects an individual or group-referenced orientation. In collectivist societies, personal identity is grounded in group-based values. A person defines “who I am” primarily in reference to relevant social groups (that is, my family, company, community and political associations). Key collectivist values include loyalty, harmony, cooperation, unity and conformity (Hofstede, 1991). In the modern era, Vietnam society continues a collectivist orientation in their social culture.

Research literature has approved the impact on and interactions between culture and leadership. Schein (1986) asserts that leaders create and manage organizational culture but cultures, in turn, create their next generation of leaders. He points out that concepts of what are the most important characteristics of effective leadership may vary in cultures. Therefore, in some cultures, a leader might need to be strongly decisive, whereas in other cultures a prerequisite is a collaborative and democratic style. He further contends that these different notions will influence the evaluation and perceptions of leaders’ behaviors and characteristics in different cultures. Thus, Vietnam is not an exception and collectivist culture influence on leadership in the different ways from other countries as well as different societal contexts.

2.8. Multiple perceptions of stakeholders

According to Meindl et al. (1985), leadership was a perception so that leaders in organization were perceived in many different aspects. In this study, the author would like to explore women transformational leadership from the views of internal stakeholders including female and male leaders, female and male non-leaders.

2.8.1. Internal stakeholders

Internal stakeholders are defined as groups upon which the corporation depended for its survival with the firm and internal stakeholders can be understood as CEOs, directors, managers and employees (Tran et al., 2016). This study concentrates on the view of women and men who were leaders and people including male and female who were not leaders perceiving how women transformational leadership was. To be specific, female and male leaders were represented in 3 senior leadership roles: (1) membership of boards of directors, (2) CEOs and (3) Department Heads; and female and male non-leaders include female and male staff in organizations. In the next section, how internal stakeholders perceive on women transformational leadership will be discussed.

2.8.2. Perceptions of internal stakeholders on women leadership

The influence of internal stakeholders’ perceptions on leadership were significantly important and women transformational leadership is not an exception. Women transformational leadership has been still a new topic in this stream. Women in higher positions and the way they lead through multiple perceptions are considered as the new emergences that researchers has been explored during this time but not too much in collectivist cultures. In fact, Western women transformational leadership in individualist cultures may not be appropriate to other countries with collectivist cultures like Vietnam, so it is important to encourage researchers to explore and discover women transformational leadership. Thus, it is necessary to carry out exploratory research on multiple internal stakeholders’ perceptions of women transformational leadership in collectivist cultures.

2.8.3. Women leadership perception processes

According to Lord & Maher (1993), leadership not only depends on how leaders manage relevant rewards and technical knowledge abilities, but also on how internal stakeholders (subordinates and peers) perceive these actions. The authors proposed and developed the leadership perception theory which is also applied for women leadership including 2 alternative leadership perception processes: a recognition-based process and an inference-based process. The recognition-based process means that the perception of women leadership effectiveness was based on how well a female matches the attributes of an “effective” leader and the inference-based process refers to a logical assumption of group or organizational performance outcomes. From 2 perception processes, women leadership is explored in different mechanisms as well as different factors in the setting. Although in individual cultures leaders usually take credit for their organization’s success, inference-based perceptions are influenced, in collectivist cultures self-effacement was valued, leaders often keep a low profile when their organizations succeed and recognition-based perceptions are dominated. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out an exploratory research on women leadership perception in 2 perception processes. A recognition-based perceptual process seems to fit this study to find out the perceptions of internal stakeholders on women leadership from flows of interpersonal activities (Tran et al., 2016).

2.8.4. Vietnamese women leadership perception

Viet Nam has a strong legal framework for gender equality, manifested in its targets for women’s political representation. However, these goals do not reflect the reality of women’s participation. There is a great imperative and opportunity to strengthen the pipeline of women for political office and public sector jobs, as the advancement of gender equality is not in line with the overall social and economic development of Vietnam. However, the public, governments, multilateral institutions and other organizations are beginning to recognize the tangible benefits associated with electing women to office. Resources from local and international organizations are increasingly dedicated to women gaining vital political and public sector skills, narrowing the gender gap in leadership opportunities and making governance gender-responsive.

UNDP (2013) state that, despite the clear targets to increase women’s representation, the Government has provided limited guidance on how the targets are to be reached. Existing leadership training programs are also not adequately inclusive or gender-sensitive enough to empower a significant cadre of women to advance in the public policy arena. They narrowly focus on skills attainment yet lack needs assessments that could allow for assessing the unique needs of women in the political environment to inform recruitment, curricula and methodology as a start. Very few Vietnamese training programs and no government-run programs focus on building career support networks or interpersonal connections for women that would supplement their skills with ongoing support, experiential learning and access to useful channels of political power. Likewise, they do not address the advocacy among men and women and influential figures that is required to help women break through the barriers to access power and assert their leadership in formal political positions. Therefore, it always exists a need to explore how people perceive women leadership in Vietnam to eliminate barriers and find out appropriate solutions for women in high positions.

3. Conclusion

The literature review chapter involved to approaches in leadership research, leadership theory development and women leadership in Vietnam’s business context through the lens of internal stakeholders. The purpose of this study is to review all the literature on leadership in individual cultures in order to explore multiple perceptions of women leadership in collectivist culture.


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Tóm tắt:

Mục đích chính của nghiên cứu là trả lời câu hỏi các đối tượng có liên quan cảm nhận như thế nào về sự lãnh đạo của phụ nữ và nghiên cứu này được thực hiện nhằm khám phá những quan điểm khác nhau về khả năng lãnh đạo của phụ nữ trong nền văn hóa tập thể. Kết quả nghiên cứu sẽ cung cấp một cách nhìn sâu sắc hơn về khả năng lãnh đạo của nữ giới trong một môi trường văn hóa tập thể như Việt Nam.

Từ khóa: Văn hóa tập thể, Việt Nam, năng lực lãnh đạo của phụ nữ.

[Tạp chí Công Thương - Các kết quả nghiên cứu khoa học và ứng dụng công nghệ, Số 12, tháng 5 năm 2020]