‘Too hard for girls’: IT student defies Vietnam’s gender norms

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A Vietnamese woman uses her computer. Reuters

HANOI (AFP) – Just a short three years ago, Pham Thu Huong had no email address, no Facebook account, and no time ever spent at the internet cafes that sprout like weeds around Vietnam. In fact, she had almost never laid her hands on a computer.

And yet now she is wrapping up her college degree in computer science, eager to try her hand at writing code for a video game starring a bird, and impressed by all the programming language that has to be learned before one can print a simple greeting: “Xin chao, the gioi” – or Vietnamese for “Hello, world.”

With the support of Microsoft’s YouthSpark scholarship, Ms Huong has been able to spend more time on her school work and less time on side jobs. The program seeks out promising young women with an interest in tech studies and is managed by the Center for Education and Development, a nonprofit group based in Hanoi. Students apply by writing an essay about their professional goals and providing background details about their financial need.

While there is a focus on the technology sector, the program taps into a much broader trend. Vietnam has a tradition of individual entrepreneurship that dates back further than the birth of most countries, from the merchants who received colonial ships in the Saigon port, to the traders who have crisscrossed the land border with China.

But the modern change brought by information technology is updating this tradition, carrying with it the spirit that anyone with enough smarts and sweat can do well, no matter his or her background.

For Ms Huong that background is in the village of Nam Dinh, more than 100 kilometers from the capital of Hanoi, where locals are known for their tofu and bamboo hat trades. In Nam Dinh, her mother carried the family, selling vegetables and pork to support a sick husband and son. Ms Huong never dared ask her parents for the few cents it would cost to play games at the nearby cyber cafe. Though the village had an internet connection, as far as Ms Huong was concerned, the World Wide Web still was not wide enough to make it to her small corner of the world.

When she finally came around to the idea of a future career in tech, the reaction from friends, relatives, and neighbours was surprisingly consistent: What is a girl doing in IT?

“They said it’s hard, possibly too hard for girls,” Ms Huong said in an interview one recent, sunny weekend after arriving on motorbike. “They still think of it as a boy thing.”

Vietnam makes gender equality a core part of its national agenda, from the grade school textbooks that teach of the Trung sisters’ fight for Vietnamese independence, to the workplace policies that protect expecting and new mothers. But gender norms still live on. And in Huong’s hamlet, people were mostly used to the image of boys and computers. Far better for her to go into a normal job, they told her, like teaching.

Her ailing father, though, was not among them. With a nostalgic smile, Ms Huong reminisces about how he encouraged her to work in tech. With technical skills, he figured, she could find a job easily and not have the financial struggles that he did. Ms Huong had thought she’d study pedagogy, but out of respect for him, she considered the alternative. She started to spend time tinkering with the computer at an uncle’s house and became amazed at all the information available at her fingertips. Eventually she applied as a computer science major at National University, in the capital.

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