Navigating the river: the hidden barriers in the water

Look at this beautiful river. Doesn’t it look inviting? Refreshing. Full of life.

Now imagine you were having a swim. But here’s the thing: you don’t actually know what is underneath.

That is exactly how female academic leaders in Vietnam feel about their life. Their lives are like a river, it flows on but no one knows what is below the surface. It is difficult to see the full picture.

Vietnam River

My study explores the female leadership in higher education in Vietnam. There are 171 universities – but only 13 female university presidents. That’s a tiny 7.6%. The numbers can tell us what is happening, but they can’t tell us why.

In the West, a number of metaphors are used to describe the barriers female leaders face. You would be familiar with a lot of these. There is the glass ceiling, the sticky floor, or the complex labyrinth. But they make little sense for an academic leader in Vietnam like myself.

To understand the challenges Vietnamese female academic leaders face requires qualitative study. I use a method called photo-elicitation which involved asking participants to bring in photos which reflected their lived experiences as female academic leaders.

In doing so, I learnt about their wishes, feelings, motivations and belief systems. I found that my participants conceptualised their career as a journey, but their journey is not inland, it’s in the water, in the river.

One Dean said she found herself swimming by herself in the river without any life raft. Another found herself stuck in the water wheel, trying to balance work and family care. Most respondents saw the uncertainty of the river’s flow which can lift them up or plunge them to the river’s bed or wash them ashore.

For me, the adverse environment that Vietnamese female academic leaders have to face is better understood by researching the language that they used. The river metaphor will provide a clearer understanding of the female leaders’ experiences and shed light on the challenges of Vietnamese women in academia.

Women in Vietnam are like raindrops. We were born from water and die to the water. How our lives turn out depends on where the raindrops fall. And my research is finally telling their story.

Jane Phuong

This article was originally produced in Issue 9, October 2022 of Murra-Magazine, Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra. The original article was entitled ‘Navigating the River (Three Minute Thesis Speech by Jane Phuong)’ and has been reproduced here as a blog post by Jane Phuong.