Prominent figures discuss leadership qualities and life experiences at a global conference.

Women leaders from all over the world gathered in Madinat Jumeirah last week for a three-day conference on teaching young women leadership skills. The conference, titled "Women as Global Leaders: Learning Leadership" hosted prominent figures from all scenes of life as well as students from 85 countries who interacted with delegates and with local students from Zayed University (ZU), the organiser of the event.

Keynote speakers addressed common themes on the first day of the conference. Topics included investing in women for social and economic progress, learning from past failures, facing adversity, assuming leadership roles with passion and fighting for causes.

Leaders beyond borders

Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and president of ZU, inaugurated the event by praising the growing influence of women in society and gave his viewpoints on the issue of leadership.

"Leadership, like all gifts, talents and skills is most likely some fascinating and perhaps highly variable combination of native talent, appropriate education, practice, feedback and a high degree of motivation," he said. "Leaders are self-motivating but committed to a cause that is larger than themselves, dynamic and visionary, but also compassionate and caring when dealing with those for whom they are responsible."

Respecting values

Humility, kindness, respect, honour, integrity, love, compassion, compromise are some of the qualities that a leader possesses, according to the Duchess of York, Sara Ferguson.

Sara shared her experience of working in less developed countries and with children who suffer from illnesses and face insurmountable difficulties. "No matter how educated you are, you have to fight forward for what you believe in. It is important that you give and live," she said.

Achieving Goals and fulfilling passion

Reem Al Hashemi, Minister of the State, commended the leadership of women nationals and the increasing number of women in important positions in various sectors. Her message was one of hope and encouragement to achieve goals and fulfill passions. "I am awed by the achievements of both men and women around me. Each of us has an obligation to find our own voice to sing," she said.

Educating girls

Haifa Al Kaylani, Founder and Chairman of the Arab International Women's Forum, discussed the changing role and status of women in an increasingly globalised world. "When women prosper, families and economies prosper. Education is the most important factor," she said.

Carol Bellany, President of World Learning, also highlighted the importance of education. "Quality education, particularly the education of girls, is an essential prerequisite of any global anti-poverty strategy," she said.

We have come a long way, and we have a long way to go

Haifa acknowledged the opportunities that are being created for women in the Arab world. "Arab countries show the highest improvement in female literacy and in reducing the gender gap, but there is a need for further educational reform. . . Gender inequality is an impediment to national and regional development," she said.

Leading like a woman and not like a man

According to Jane Fonda, award-winning actress and humanitarian, the world is seeing the end of the patriarchal system. Men grow up in a culture that teaches them leadership, whereas women are trained to be reserved and follow the lead, she said. Women in leadership positions tend to act differently from men. "Men are elite and hierarchal while women are circumspect and inclusive, facilitating the process that includes everyone on its way to progress," she explained.

She encouraged women to overcome obstacles and make their way forward. "Profound change will not happen to women unless they move to leadership positions and govern as women and not men," she said.

Struggle for a cause and for a better life

Helen Thomas, renowned author and journalist, discussed her experience covering American presidents as White House Bureau Chief. "When I first went to Washington, many doors were closed to women." Despite the great strides the Western world has accomplished, women have a long way to go to reach the mountaintop, she said.

Addressing the issue of leadership, she said, "Whenever you see injustice and try to rectify it, when you care, that's leadership. Leadership takes courage; you may not be loved if you challenge the status quo but so what? The cause is right. The search for the truth by itself is heart-warming."

Thomas also discussed the global image of the US and how to learn from wars and past mistakes.

Her final message was to always fight for a better life. "In the struggle for a better life for our children, everyone has to try. Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for all of us. Let's give peace a chance and let it begin with us," she said.

Investing in women for a better society

Carol called for greater investment in women and children in order to make the world a better place. "It is true that the past 50 years saw some substantial gains in the status of women and girls and gender equality in many parts of the world, including increases in women's life expectancy, literacy, employment and political participation, said Carol. "However, gender discrimination and inequalities remain pervasive and they undermine development by preventing both women and men from achieving their full social, economic and political potential."

The power of persuasion

Mary Sue Coleman, President of the University of Michigan told the students to embrace diversity and welcome new ideas and opinions. Power does not come with the chair, she said, but with the ability to persuade people.

"Leaders must make difficult choices, and ethical standards must always inform those choices. I want to be a role model for both women and men, particularly our students and faculty," she added.

Young generations learn from older ones

Mona Al Sayed, marketing last year, said she is planning to open her own business upon graduation. "I have to be a good leader, and I am studying a leadership course in Zayed University to improve my abilities," she said.

International women unite

Over 2,000 delegates from 85 countries attended. Each had their own expectations, but most expressed their enthusiasm about joining the cause for women and leadership. Amanda Melendez from Ohio University said , "I hope I will learn more about understanding other cultures, open-mindedness, awareness and building confidence and leadership skills."

Tiffany De Leon from Minnesota said, "I was in tears at the end of Jane Fonda's speech. I'm here to learn about motivation and leadership; I want to learn from the experience of other women."

Women leading all the way

ZU students took a big part in organizing the conference. Shaima Obaid from the organizing committee said, "This was an opportunity for me to participate in an international activity; it will improve my leadership skills as well as my organising and controlling skills."

For PR student Sara Al Mutawa, this was the opportunity to practice her future career. "This event helps me practice what it is like to work in PR and network with a lot of people. It is a great opportunity to attend this event in my own country," she said.

Students who did not participate in organizing the event took part in the academic sessions that were scheduled for three days. Sara Abdullah, International Relations student in ZU, said, "We are participating in a session that discusses women's leadership across cultures. Sixteen students from ZU and the international community will be giving their viewpoints."

Sara attended the lectures and said that her most inspiring role model is journalist Helen Thoman. "I admire Helen Thomas because she speaks her mind and reminds us that we can push for our dreams and achieve them," she said.

Continuation despite failure

All speakers had much to say about standing in the face of hardships. Being public figures, they shared their personal experiences in being under public scrutiny and having to deal with criticism and insult.

The Duchess of York said that she was put in the public spotlight at an early age; with that came much criticism from all sides. The way to deal with that, she said, is by accepting it and moving on. Sara told the students, "Dare to dream, hold your dreams and if you have to go through adversity, embrace it because it means you are close to the light."

Meanwhile, Mary Sue said that comments directed at leaders should not be taken personally. "When you lead an organisation, you are fair game for pundits, cartoonists and bloggers. . . But I don't let it – or any other criticism – bother me, because I taught myself never to take too much note of either scorn or praise. None of it is personal, and all of it would be directed at whomever might happen to be president, because the president of the university is the very face of the institution," she said.

Shaikh Nahyan praised the leadership and determination that women have shown. "What makes these women remarkable as leaders is the determination, the skills, and the gifts that have allowed them to face adversity and still move forward," Shaikh Nahyan said in his speech.