First lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton batted for women's rights at the Forbes 30/50 Summit held in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
They called for pay parity and the need for institutional support to support women to achieve gender equality.
Speaking on International Women's Day, Ms Clinton said the UN’s latest estimate shows that gender equality and pay parity are 300 years away and that is “distressing.”
“I think the bottom line is we have a lot of work to do, and we can't take any of the progress that has been made for granted,” the former first lady told a high-profile audience of women chief executives, entrepreneurs and change-makers from all over the world.
Twenty years after she famously declared that “women’s rights are human rights" at a United Nations conference on women in September 1995 in Beijing, Ms Clinton said governments have stalled on pay equality.
“We have seen organised pushback to the advancement of women,” she said, adding that Covid-19 dramatically slowed down the already slow progress the world was making on gender issues.
Ms Clinton said in the US, though women make up the majority of college-educated people, they are still underrepresented at the highest level of leadership in most sectors. This is a problem that goes far beyond the US and is a global fact, she said.
"It is important to fight for institutional support for women. We are working hard to get quality, affordable childcare and paid leave so that women could choose to combine family and work in a way that did not disadvantage or undermine their responsibilities at home or in the workplace,” she told The National.
Ms Clinton said women have to stand up for other women, find allies and also learn the power of communication.
“Too often, it is a lonely time when you are the only woman who is in a position of having to speak up or try to make a point in a not-very-friendly atmosphere,” she said.
She said the Ukraine war, like any other conflict in Afghanistan or Iran, has demonstrated that women and children are the primary sufferers of conflict and climate change.
By speaking up, women are amplifying the voices of many other women, said Ms Clinton.
She said Ms Zelenska was doing exactly that. “She is standing up on behalf of her country and the people who are the most vulnerable and marginalised," Ms Clinton said.
“But you don't have to be in the middle of a horrible war that is breaking every law there is and committing crimes against humanity to stand up and speak out. And know that you are doing it not just for yourself. Somehow that might make it easier.”
Forbes 30/50 Summit - in pictures
First ladies are not just soft power
Speaking about the difficulties Ukraine is facing since the Russian invasion, Ms Zelenska, who addressed the audience in her native language, said it is a time of trial for every woman in Ukraine and it is no different for her.
Quoting examples of the resilience and bravery of Ukrainian women, the first lady said they had adapted faster than their enemies predicted.
“Ukrainian men and women have been adapting so fast that our enemies are not able to come up with new challenges,” Ms Zelenska said.
She said her efforts to forge diplomatic partnerships and mobilise humanitarian work with the help of other first ladies are proving efficient.
“Previously, it was thought that first ladies are soft power. But we have shown that we are not just a soft power. We are a force,” she said.
On the importance of International Women’s Day, Ms Zelenska said that it should not be just a day to speak about women’s rights and equality.
“I would like us all to remember that equality is a normal thing. It is not something that we should be fighting for. It Is not new,” she said.
“It is much easier for me to speak about it [equality] because I understand equality is normal. I think the next step is to make sure that all women understand that. Not only women but also men.”
Billie Jean King, an American sports icon and champion of equality, and Gloria Steinem, a journalist and leading feminist voice in the US, also participated in the panel and stressed the importance of pay parity and equal rights for women.
Ms King said women have a “long way to go” before they achieve pay equity.
“Follow the money," she advised. "What can money do? It can give many fantastic things in life like freedom and mobility … all kinds of things that we never dreamed of.”