By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Women empowerment has made great strides in recent decades, but most women will still attest to discrimination and difficulties in breaking the glass ceiling in politics, corporations and society.
Still, there are a growing number of women leaders who have smashed through the glass ceiling and have reached the pinnacle of success around the world.
Top female leaders, such as former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, prominent U.A.E. politician Najla Al-Awadhi, former Google Spain CEO Isabel Aguilera, and Hollywood actress Sigourney Weaver, will be sharing their insights at the 2010 Global Women's Leadership Conference, which opens Monday.
The two-day conference, organized by The Hankook Ilbo, sister publication of The Korea Times, and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, will tackle the theme ``Women, Change & Vision.’’ The conference runs through Tuesday at The Shilla hotel, Seoul.
``We can no longer deal with the issue of women from the negative perspective of gender inequality and keep up with the age of drastic change. It is time we all should deeply reflect on the leadership of today's women and search for the right directions by which women will play a main role as leaders in society and enablers of the future,'' said Lee Jong-seoung, CEO of The Hankook Ilbo.
The conference’s theme is especially relevant for South Korea, which is trying to close the gender gap. Korea is the 13th largest economy in the world but continuously ranks near the bottom in gender gap surveys. It ranked 104th out of 134 countries in the 2010 Gender Gap index by the World Economic Forum. Despite government’s continued efforts to improve gender equality, it is obvious that more needs to be done.
The Global Women Leadership Conference aims to empower women to be imaginative, resilient and visionary to lead change. It is will also provide young Korean women with the chance to listen to the success stories of women leaders, as well as advice on how to overcome challenges.
Breaking the glass ceiling
The 2010 Global Women’s Leadership Conference opens Monday with a keynote speech from Jenny Shipley, New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister who served from 1997 to 1999.
``It is time for women in Asia to step forward to show they are not only capable, but willing to do so,” Shipley, who is also an active member of the World Women’s Leadership Council, said, in an interview this month.
The conference will have six sessions, each tackling important issues and women’s challenges in the economy, politics, business and society.
In the first session ``Women & Global Economy: The Outlook and Opportunities for Business,'' American economist and Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley professor Laura Tyson will talk about the economic implications of closing the gender gap for countries.
``It's simple. You look at the numbers in the U.S. and there are more numbers of women enrolled in undergraduate courses than men, also with master's degrees. If you don't find ways to utilize women's talents, that's human talent and it will affect efficiency and economic growth,’’ Tyson, a member of U.S. President Barack Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said, in an earlier interview.
Lorna Davis, president of Kraft Foods China, will also give a speech during the session.
In the second session ``Women Leaders in Asia,” Lee Bae-yong, chairman of the Presidential Council on National Branding, and Najla Al Awadhi, a prominent politician and deputy CEO at Dubai Media, will talk about their own experiences.
Al Awadhi is one of the first women members of the parliament in the United Arab Emirates. In an earlier interview, she emphasized that women should be supported by policies and legislations because empowerment is not a process that happens naturally.
“It is a project that must be adopted and aggressively implemented through the relevant spheres of society, such as media, civil society, education and law. Even though I am not a big fan of traditional quota systems for women, I believe the application of meritocratic quota systems can contribute to empowering women,” she said.
In the third session, Kate Sweetman, prominent leadership consultant and co-author of the bestseller ``Leadership Code: 5 Rules to Lead By,’’ will give a presentation on the role of government in supporting female leadership in politics, business and society.
Countries are faced with the challenge of how to integrate women into high level decision-making positions throughout society. ``Changing deeply held traditions and beliefs around who the women are and what they can do can’t be simply ordered or legislated away. As with any major corporate change, the leader ship must guide the society as well as the system,’’ Sweetman said.
Women in politics, business
The second day of the conference will focus on women leadership issues in politics and corporate world.
Paik Hee-young, Minister of Gender Equality and Family, will give a speech to open the session ``Tough Leadership Decision in Tough Times.’’
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will deliver the keynote speech at the same session. In an earlier interview, Rice believes women empowerment will address gender inequality as well as human rights and poverty.
``I’ve always believed that if you empower women, you will not have a problem with population control. If you educate women, they are not going to have children at age 12 and they are not going to have 15 kids. If you educate women, they will not be trafficked into brothels when they are 11,’’ Rice said.
In the session ``Women in the corporate world,’’ challenges being faced by women in the business sector will be discussed. More women may be joining the workforce but the number of women in senior-level positions in corporations has not improved much.
Isabel Aguilera, former CEO of Google Spain & Portugal, and Ha Yung-ku, Citibank Korea CEO, will give speeches during the session.
Aguilera, in an earlier interview, said that increasing the number of women in the workplace is common business sense. ``Innovation and new ideas might come from anybody, anywhere and at any time. Rejecting the contribution of 50 percent of the global talent in any business is, at least, a risky game in a world where every mistake pays a high price,” Aguilera said.
At the last session, young women will be able to hear valuable advice from women leaders, such as Lucy P. Marcus, founder and CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting; and Han Young-sil, president of Sookmyung Women’s University.
``It is incumbent on all of us to ensure there is an atmosphere in which we can harness and encourage the talents, enthusiasm, and skills of all people to help the future development of these societies. In countries where that may not have been the case in the past, special efforts will need to be made to ensure that women are able to emerge into these position, be it legislative policy or economic incentives,” Marcus said, in an earlier interview.
Three-time Academy Award nominee and actress Sigourney Weaver will give a special speech at the conference’s closing session, Tuesday afternoon.
Weaver, who starred in the blockbuster films ``Avatar’’ and ``Alien,’’ will not just talk about her experiences as an actress but also as an environmentalist.
``I am going to talk quite a bit about the environment. I feel like one of the things woman can do in our world (is about the environment) because we deal with the home and we deal with the market place. We have a closer bond with a lot of nature because we give birth to children and we are responsible for so much... I think there are specific things women can do at home and in their professional life and show that kind of leadership and prioritization,’’ Weaver said, in an earlier interview.