Alona Lebedieva is the owner and Head of Supervisory Board at the Kyiv based Aurum Group, a leading Ukrainian diversified industrial and investment group with more than 1500 employees. She is also a Member of the supervisory board of Corporate Investment Fund Start-up.
She is a graduate of the Kyiv Institute of International Relations, and holds a Master’s degree in international economics.
She is a strong advocate for change in both the political arena and in the workplace, where too often women are discriminated against.
Following a recent press conference at Brussels Press Club, Alona agreed to an interview with EU Today.
Concerning the “glass ceiling.” In both the private and public sectors of Ukraine, what is the ratio between men and women at boardroom level?
Of course, if we were to compare Ukraine with countries of the Near East and Africa, the situation in Ukraine Isn’t so deplorable. But I think Ukraine still has significant room for development in the context of women rights, especially given our ambition to join the EU.
Concerning the indicators, the ratio of men and women occupying the top positions in Ukrainian politics and business becomes closer year by year.
The crucial moment, when alignment speeded up, was in 2014, when the war in the eastern part of Ukraine began. But there is some discrepancy of ratio spreading. Of course, in the capital or in the biggest cities of western part of Ukraine women have more possibilities to realise their potential than in small cities and especially in villages, where rigid patriarchy rules.
Today 1/3 of Ukrainian deputies are women, twice higher than in 2014. But the number of women who received their mandate by a majority system is much less.
To be elected by majority vote It is enough for a man to look presentable, unlike a woman. In this case the woman has to prove her competence. But in comparison with 2014 it is great achievement anyway, because in 2014 there were only 2 women, both elected by majority system.
The situation in big business is, however, worse. According to statistical data the number of business women is 16 times less than men. Mostly women are running small enterprises, such as retail and service. I’m absolutely sure that the women’s power and potential is highly underestimated: but this will change.
Historically, advances in Women’s Rights are made after a major conflict. For example, universal suffrage was achieved in Europe in two waves: the first after the First World War (UK, Germany, et al.) Then again after the Second World War (France, Belgium, et al.) What are your expectations for Ukraine, and particularly for Ukrainian women following the end of the war?
I believe that the Ukrainian woman is extremely strong, and I’m certain that the war has pushed the awareness at all levels of the importance of involving Ukrainian woman in the post-war development and growth of our country.
Significant changes are to take place. There are many spheres which were considered as masculine until recently, but now we can now clearly see a change of mood.
For instance, Ukrainian women in the army. Today more than 60,000 women serve in our country’s armed forces, a figure 2.5 times higher than in 2014.
Recent sociological surveys show that women feel equal to men on the battlefield. I firmly believe that when the war ends, and our victory comes, Ukrainian woman will be present in all political circles. This is is vital, because if women ran the world, wars would never have happened!
Generally speaking, is there equality in earnings for men and women in Ukraine?
There are not and never have been any salary differences of men and women in my company, Aurum group. But generally the situation in Ukraine is worse: Ukrainian official statistical data shows the gap is 18%.
Fortunately, however, here we can also report some positive changes, because this gap was a staggering 30% just 10 years ago.
Do you feel that following the end of the current conflict Ukrainian civil society is prepared to push for greater equality of status for women in the boardroom and also in the political arena?
Undoubtedly war propels this process. Many changes are taking place before our eyes. I completely agree that the role of women at all levels is truly undervalued, and especially by people of the soviet generation.
Looking carefully at the business environment we can state it as fact that most women have traditionally occupied so-called service positions, such as HR-Director, Chief Accountant and so on. In my opinion, the main reason for that is the stereotypes, the foundation of which were laid in soviet or postwar childhood, when a woman’s place was defined by the kitchen or her husband.
Unfortunately, Ukraine was no exception. I, being an owner and CEO of industrial group of companies, had to walk this path and put a lot of effort into overcoming these stereotypes. Frankly speaking, in spite of 20 years of working experience, in spite of many significant business victories and defeats under my belt, I sometimes still have to prove my professional qualification and business independence.
But nowadays, with our generation, we have an incredible opportunity to lay the foundation of comprehension on the equal rights of men and women.
Do you see a window of opportunity during Ukraine’s EU accession process to the EU to push for such legislation as may be required to achieve a level playing field?
If we want to become an EU member state, we have to adapt our legal system to meet EU standards, and the issue of equal rights between men and women will be a priority for Ukraine – and for the EU.
I am proud to assure that serious work is being done in this direction, even now, when the country is at war. Our government is legislating initiatives that can and will help to adjust our standards in this area to those of the EU.
In particular, I would draw attention to the state strategy for Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women and Men which was approved in Summer 2022. According to this strategy, equal rights must be guaranteed in all economical spheres. I believe that this document is extremely important and its acceptance was pushed by our ambition to join the EU.
How could the EU pressure Kyiv to bring employment practices up to EU standards?
In my view, the employment issue should be integrated into the legislation package for joining EU. It will be a powerful lever, because everybody understands that joining EU is our strategic goal.
Do the Ukrainian political elite realise that the EU is actually serious about addressing issues of corruption before the accession process can truly begin?
The main issue is that corrupters will fight for every single piece of bread. A fact that shouldn’t be forgotten by any country.
That is why I’m sure that current Ukrainian political elite, which was traditionally bound together by corruption, do not completely realise the seriousness of the EU in its requirement for Ukraine to solve this problem prior to accession. I believe, absolutely, that Ukraine must orient its practices towards EU standards. We do not have any other alternative to joining the EU.
Do the Ukrainian political elite understand the institutional reforms that EU accession will require?
I would point out here that the Ukrainian political elite desired accession to the EU for a long period of time now, and I hope they realise how close this moment could become. Nowadays they have to accept that they must refuse corruption and implement civilised methods of work. Just realise, after short period of time, we will be working inside legislation EU field.
Do you yourself have any concerns about Ukraine’s aspirations to join the EU?
I firmly believe, that any business has to step up, accept the challenges, and adapt. In the Aurum group we have such an ideology. This is the reason we strive to join EU: we are not afraid of competition, because we are ready for changes.
If we are speaking about our industrial sector, we are implementing new products right now, products, which were being produced in Russia. We, Ukrainian producers, have strong willingness to get our own Ukrainian products to the market. It is a challenge for state and business but we will rise to this challenge.
In general, in Ukraine the complicated but important process of the final rejection of the soviet economic model is not yet fully complete. I believe that thanks to the foreign investors this way could be overcome faster.
And by the time Ukraine joins the EU we will face other challenges. But I am totally sure that we will cope with them. Ukrainians have significant adjustable and creative potential, we have great technical specialists, we are ready for modernisation of our production and we are constantly working on it.