The United Nations (UN) hosted a high level session on “Economic Growth and Women’s Empowerment” on Thursday, September 27, co-organized by the State of Lithuania and the Council of Women World Leaders (CWWL). A significant number of female world leaders and the United Nations Secretary-General addressed the state of gender equality and women’s empowerment in the world today.

In her introductory remarks, host of the conference Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė highlighted three key areas in the struggle for gender equality in 2018. First, she stressed the importance of ensuring that girls receive a full education. Second, she urged the UN to provide better protection against violence and to work within its capabilities to amend discriminatory national laws. Third, President Grybauskaitė called for the UN to provide assistance to states in adapting such laws and promoting best practices in order to change social and cultural norms and to combat stereotypes.

The common theme across all the leaders’ speeches was a tone of frustration at the fact that, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on December 10, patriarchal cultural norms continue to impede the full achievement of women’s rights across the world.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted that less than 23% of parliamentary positions across the world are held by women and that less than 5% of all heads of state are women. Extending the metaphor of the “glass ceiling,” the Secretary General identified the issue of the “glass cliff.” He said more than twice as many women as men leave STEM jobs within a short amount of time. He called for more action to halt this “female brain drain,” saying that across all sectors, including at the UN itself, competent women were needed to replace incompetent men.

President of the World Bank Group, Jim Yong Kim, stressed that the problems of the 21st century cannot be addressed without gender parity, as called for in the UN’s 2030 agenda.

Four of the eight current sitting female heads of state expressed clear frustration at the slow pace of the march toward gender parity. Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović pointed out that, even within the European Union — a conglomerate of developed states with strict guidelines on gender inequality — parity is still far from a reality. On average, she said, women earn 12% less than men in Croatia, despite their higher average level of education. President Grabar-Kitarović also highlighted the role of the media in perpetuating negative stereotypes in the way it portrays women. She said that girls need to be taught that there are not “male jobs” and “female jobs” and that they need to be encouraged to enter STEM subjects.

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid also made the point that discriminating against women and girls starts early in life and permeates society in both tangible and intangible ways. She related her experience of being asked repeatedly by journalists about who was looking after her four children, noting that such questions were rarely put to her male predecessor.

25% of EU women report care and family responsibilities as reason for not being in the labor force, she stated, while only 3% of men report those reasons. President Kaljulaid lamented that the 26% pay gap between men and women in Estonia is not showing signs of changing. She stressed particularly the role of women themselves in enforcing these stereotypes, urging women not to engage patriarchal norms in raising their daughters.

Likewise, High Commissioner for Human Rights (and former President of Chile) Michelle Bachelet relayed an anecdote of being asked by a female journalist how she copes without a spouse, a question rarely if ever faced by male leaders.

Maltese President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca urged world leaders and citizens to be more “vociferous” about changing the way women are portrayed in media and culture. Malta has among the lowest levels of female economic participation, she said. President Coleiro Preca highlighted the double standard applied to her in her own career such that when she has been assertive she has often been described as “aggressive,” whereas male leaders who behave similarly are seen as strong, capable leaders. She also stated that equality should not be a matter of obscuring the differences between genders but about creating respectful interactions between men and women. She stressed that gender inequality has detrimental effects not only to the lives of women but to the whole of society.

President Coleiro Preca’s frustration was apparent as she called for tangible action to implement the UDHR on its 70th anniversary. “We cannot wait any more,” she said. “We have been speaking about this issue ad nauseam.”

The Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, echoed this sentiment: “How many presidents in the world are women? Eight. Four of them are here. Only 10 prime ministers are women. We are not so many, but need to be so much.”

High Commissioner Bachelet joined the rest of the speakers in underlining that political change will not come without deep cultural shifts in the way women are viewed. She suggested that women’s empowerment be placed at the center of human rights advocacy. She called for a reimagining of the concepts of masculinity and femininity to challenge taboos around matters like family planning, menstruation, breastfeeding, and menopause.

“Women’s empowerment matters because women matter.”

“Women’s empowerment matters because women matter,” she said simply. She urged the importance of making women’s rights advocacy both “principled” and “visible.”  For instance, Canada has introduced “gender budgeting,” a policy highlighted by Canada’s representative at the special session. This involves an officially “feminist” policy perspective and implementation of measures such as ensuring that women receive 50% of all public funding in certain areas, such as filmmaking.

Meanwhile, the High Commissioner affirmed the importance of quotas for enhancing women’s participation in the work place, saying that societies will not make the necessary changes organically.

Tunisia and Egypt were the only two Arab countries represented or mentioned during the special session. High Commissioner Bachelet pointed to Tunisia as a success story. She highlighted Tunisia’s announcement that it intends to implement full gender equality in inheritance matters and to amend legislation to ease restrictions on agricultural workers, most of whom are women.

Tunisia compares favorably with other states in the Middle East and North Africa region, many of which have notoriously poor standards on women’s rights. In contrast, the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation told a UN Populations Fund (UNFPA) special session on women’s rights last week of a large increase in child marriage in Yemen since the beginning of the war in 2015. The severely restricted freedoms of women in Saudi Arabia, where women achieved the right to drive only in June 2018 and activists who advocated for that right still sit on death row, need no elaboration.

Ghada Waly, Egyptian Minister for Social Solidarity, spoke of Egypt’s Conditional Cash Transfer Program, which provides health and education funding to households with a female head of family. The program affects 2.5 million people. Minister Waly told the session that Egypt has also invested significantly in early-stage education, including the creation of a fund for nurseries. Egypt has also invested in initiatives to boost women in business, increased female representation in parliament and enacted laws against harassment.

While some positive steps have been taken toward improving women rights, most states in the MENA region have a long way to go to reach even current European standards, much less the standards called for by the world’s women leaders in Thursday’s session.

The message from female world leaders at the UN was clear: women’s rights are human rights, and while changes in laws and policies can help achieve results, the fundamental factors that impede the full achievement of gender parity and lead to abuses of women’s rights run much deeper. Men and women must be part of a radical change in the notion of women’s entitlement to equality. This will require a dramatic cultural shift in the way people think about women and girls.

Elisabeth Myers contributed direct reporting to this article.