Sexual harassment at work: A case study of working women in contemporary Vietnam

Author: Huong Thi Nguyen

Nguyen, Huong Thi, 2023 Sexual harassment at work: A case study of working women in contemporary Vietnam, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

Terms of Use: This electronic version is (or will be) made publicly available by Flinders University in accordance with its open access policy for student theses. Copyright in this thesis remains with the author. You may use this material for uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968. If you are the owner of any included third party copyright material and/or you believe that any material has been made available without permission of the copyright owner please contact with the details.


Workplace sexual harassment (SH) has been addressed in global literature as a form of gender discrimination. SH undermines gender equality at work and adversely impacts workers' dignity and well-being. In Vietnam, traditional social norms of sexuality and gender roles have led to a biased conceptualisation of SH as a 'personal and sensitive topic' that is largely not considered within the workplace context. Furthermore, the absence of legislation on workplace SH prior to 2019, unavailable national statistics, and limited academic research have added to the silence on this topic in Vietnam. There has been little analysis concerning what constitutes workplace SH in Vietnam, how SH is culturally constructed, and what socio-cultural, organisational, and legal factors contribute to the workplace SH issue. This thesis aims to fill these gaps, addressing the question, ‘How has sexual harassment been a workplace issue in Vietnam, and how do Vietnamese working women conceptualise SH at work?’

Informed by socio-cultural and organisational theoretical approaches, the thesis investigates workplace SH produced by the interrelation of socially constructed gender inequality and organisational power at work. It examines the extent to which SH has been portrayed as a workplace issue, how the socio-cultural structure of gender relations and social norms inform workers' perceptions, experiences, and responses to SH at work, and whether workers convey a sense of legal consciousness in addressing the issue at work. To understand workplace SH from working people's perspectives, the thesis analyses a survey of 342 working people from several employment sectors and 72 interviews conducted online in 7 cities and provinces in Vietnam in 2020. The secondary data analysed in this thesis draws on an eclectic body of global scholarship and academic literature, research reports, social media, and legislation documents.

This thesis argues that SH is a complex workplace problem in contemporary Vietnam. This issue is mutually constructed and reinforced by unbalanced organisational power relations and unequal gender relations, governed by traditional gender social norms attributed to men and women, which spill over from society into the workplace. These interconnected forces significantly inform the entire process, starting from workers' conceptualisation of workplace SH to how they frame and disclose their experience and respond to it. The findings suggest the relationship between workers' perceptions, experiences, and responses to workplace SH is entrenched in traditional cultural narratives that position women in subordinated roles and push them to conform to conventional norms. The thesis results and analysis imply that the Vietnamese laws on promoting gender equality at work, particularly the recent law on SH, have not yet sufficiently emphasised on and dealt with challenging and shifting the deep-seated traditional cultural justification for gender disparity which are a cause of gender-based violence and SH.

The thesis makes an original contribution to identify and fill gaps in knowledge about workplace SH in Vietnam and demonstrate the importance of examining sexual harassment in contexts beyond the West. It examines how working women in Vietnam conceptualise and make sense of SH in the workplace environment, which underscores a variety of perspectives people hold about what constitutes SH. Working people's understanding of SH does not necessarily correlate with the way they label their incident as SH or seek formal institutional support from laws or organisational policies. Employees' sense of fairness in addressing SH at work is driven by cultural norms and expectations of proper workplace behaviours and morality rather than legal consciousness or understanding of the law.

The thesis centres on unpacking socio-cultural and organisational factors giving rise to SH, including differential workplace power and the roles of gendered norms operating at work. It furthers the cultural dimension of understanding SH and brings together historical, cultural, structural, and legal factors that shape workplace SH, offering a new conceptual and theoretical inside of examining the phenomenon in interconnected aspects. The thesis deepens understanding of workplace SH from intertwined socio-cultural and organisational perspectives by revealing SH at work that has been obscured by long-lasting Vietnam’s Confucian blending with a socialist-communist gender regime. It demonstrates that in the contemporary society of Vietnam, the tension of unwritten gender norms remains and is carried over to the workplace, making the case of SH at work a highly complex issue. The thesis broadens the literature on the role of social norms as potentially putting brakes on or providing accelerators to promote women's voices and organisation power to tackle SH in the workplace. The thesis provides evidence for influencing gender norms to support women's advancement, employment participation, and workplace equality and safety.

Keywords: Sexual Harassment at work, Gendered social norms, gender relations, gender equality, workplace equality and safety, organisational power relations, worker legal consciousness.

Subject: Law thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2023
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Yvonne Corcoran-Nantes