As Cambodia goes through rapid development and economic growth, changes are being felt in the workplace as women look to make their mark in professions traditionally seen as male preserves.
According to the Cambodia Inter-Censal Population Survey 2013, women are predominantly employed in agriculture and the crafts and service industries.
Things are changing, however, and education has played a part in women’s growing emergence in business, said Hang Chansophea, a lecturer and researcher at the Royal University of Fine Arts who focuses on gender studies and development.
“Education for women in Cambodia has improved with scholarships from secondary school until higher education,” she said. “Now, women who do have the skill, knowledge and education are becoming confident about decision-making.”
Here’s a glimpse at three women who are making it big in a man’s world.
Surrounded by teenage boys practicing their football skills on a pitch in Phnom Penh, Chheun Nipha is in her element, whistle in hand, shouting out instructions. At 23, Ms. Nipha is one of the youngest female football coaches in the country, and, she says, one of only a 20 or so women coaches working in Cambodia, whether in a paid or voluntary capacity.
It’s been a long journey for her.
At 12, Ms. Nipha was sent to work at a small garment-making business in Thailand to help support her family in Battambang. “The workplace was not a good place,” she said. “I was abused and got beaten.”
With the help of an NGO, she returned to Cambodia after six months and lived with other young migrant workers in Battambang. A year later, at 13, she moved to the Sports and Leadership Training Academy (SALT), an organization working across Cambodia’s northwest provinces to empower young people, especially girls, to become leaders through a community-based football program and vocational training.
“I was influenced by some people I know who moved to that NGO and played football and they convinced me to go as well,” Ms. Nipha said.
“The feeling when I touched football…it was magnificent. I remember that feeling clearly, when I forgot everything and just laughed like I lived in another world.”
She became a leader on SALT’s female football team, Mighty Girls.
“Female football is still in its infancy in Cambodia, yet the impact of girls succeeding in a traditionally male-dominated arena is already challenging gender discrimination throughout society,” SALT notes on its website.
After finishing high school, Ms. Nipha decided to pursue a career in the sport.
It took two years of coaching and study to gain a ‘B’ level coaching certificate from the Asian Football Confederation. She aims to pass the advanced ‘C’ level and one day work as an international coach for a major academy.
For now, she is employed teaching teenage boys at Phnom Penh Crown F.C. and volunteers at weekends to coach female high school students.
“The boys were quite naughty at first and tried to challenge me,” Ms. Nipha said. “But after some time, they got used to me.”
Ms. Nipha’s family—her parents, an older sister and two younger brothers—also took time to come around to her career choice.
“They didn’t think it was good, but later seeing me being quite happy with the job, they were also happy for me,” she said.
Her boyfriend, who works in information technology, is very supportive. Ms. Nipha said she has no doubt that she’s found her calling.
“After the first time of playing football, I just started to love it,” she said. “I didn’t think of gender or the constraint, because while I was playing, I forgot about everything else.”
As a civil engineer, Seng Sona spends half her working life on dusty, dirty construction sites overseeing the progress of her company’s buildings and the other half in the comfort of an air-conditioned office writing reports. To her, she has the best of both worlds.
Her parents, however, were not sure when she first announced her career choice.
“There were some disagreements from both parents as I am female and my work involves a lot of traveling, which they thought was too hard for me,” she said.
Her father worked in construction, preparing drawings of buildings, and she would watch him when he brought work home.
She studied civil engineering in Denmark and worked in the Scandinavian country for more than 10 years before returning to Cambodia.
Now 35, she’s the general manager of Advanced Engineering Consultants, which employs five engineers. While one of the staff is also a woman from abroad, Ms. Sona is the lone female Cambodian engineer on the team, which makes her stand out when she visits construction sites.
“At the beginning, the men used to stare a lot and I didn’t know what they thought,” Ms. Sona said. “But later, when they got used to me, it was fine.”
Her field is still heavily male dominated, but she believes this is partly because of misconceptions about the job.
“People who have never worked in this profession would imagine this is heavy labor work, but engineers have different roles,” she said.
Ms. Sona’s job involves overseeing construction of buildings, bridges or factories, and while she does have to don a hard hat on site visits, her job also entails project management and evaluation.
She considers her gender to be an advantage, saying women are naturally more flexible in communication, enabling her to get her points across without offending workers.
“As a female, we might be able to approach them in a softer way and put yourself in their shoes, while at the same time ensuring the quality of work is delivered,” she said.
Talking about her job is a way of encouraging more Cambodian women to look at engineering as a viable and fulfilling career choice.
“I didn’t think of this work as fitting with my gender or not,” she said. “It is just what I like and what I want to do.”
Zipping around Phnom Penh on Vespa scooters in their bright red T-shirts, the MotoGirlTour guides are hard to miss. They’ve become used to being stared at in a city where nearly all motorbike drivers are male.
Renou Chea, 26, started the all-female MotoGirlTour a year ago, offering travel services in and around the capital, because she was looking for a business with flexible working hours. After finishing two bachelor’s degrees in accounting and English literature, Ms. Chea worked in finance for nine months, but quit to take care of her sick father and look after the family’s grocery store with her mother.
After her father recovered, she didn’t want to return to regular office work. She got the idea for MotoGirlTour after her aunt told her about a group of female students offering a moto-taxi service in Thailand.
MotoGirlTour offers various trips, including a $38-per-person city tour, taking in attractions such as the Royal Palace, National Museum and Wat Phnom.
Ms. Chea, who has been riding a motorbike since school, recruited her younger sister Raksmey, 23, and a cousin as part-time drivers, while her brother created a website for them.
At first, some male drivers got the wrong idea about the nature of their business, she said.
“Before we put up a logo, they misunderstood us as sex workers and looked down on us,” she said. “Now some drivers still look down on us. Maybe they are jealous that the clients don’t take their tuk-tuk or moto.”
But Ms. Chea said the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive from their customers, the majority of whom are male, although female clients are increasing.
Ms. Chea said that her own family was a little concerned at first about her safety.
“In the beginning, they worried too, but I told them Cambodia is our place and so it is we who understand the location,” she said.
Aside from the cost of buying their website domain name, which her younger brother covered, their parents helped them buy two Vespas.
They expect to recoup their capital outlay by next year, based on the speed of their business growth, as the number of customers is up by 30 percent compared to last year. Ms. Chea, who had still been working for her parents, is now virtually self-sufficient.
Business received a boost when their story was picked up in February by the BBC and featured on its website. Bookings doubled last month, up to 10 to 12 clients, and another cousin has joined them as a driver.
“I am hoping the business can grow to the state that each of us can have our own clients and be able to work in different shifts,” she said.
MotoGirlTour has big ambitions. Ms. Chea hopes their customers can be a part of this success.
“Sometimes the clients give feedback and comments to do what we didn’t even know we needed to do,” she said. “So they are really the ones to help us build it up as a proper business.”