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Opportunities for women

Unilever is in a strong position to help empower women around the world: over 70% of our consumers are women and they play essential roles in our value chain. We also engage women as growers, distributors, and factory and office employees.

Often, women are the change agents within the family, and globally it is acknowledged that economically empowering women creates a ripple effect on families, communities and economies1.

Empowering women has been recognised as key to the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development. We advocated the adoption of a specific target on women’s empowerment, which is now Global Goal 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. Through our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan our activities also impact a number of the other Goals, such as Goal 1 on poverty; 2 zero hunger; 4 quality education; 8 decent work and economic growth; 9 industry, innovation and infrastructure; 10 reduce inequality; and 17 partnerships for the goals.

Addressing barriers to gender equality is not just the right thing to do; it is also vital for our future growth. We consider the respect and promotion of women’s rights and the advancement of women’s economic inclusion as a business priority. By promoting the formal and active participation of women in the economy, we aim to transform lives, families, communities and economies. In turn, we have the opportunity to grow our markets, brands and business.

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Our strategy

We believe that women's empowerment is the single greatest enabler of human development and economic growth - and that creating opportunities for women throughout our value chain is essential to our business growth.

Shakthi trader selling Unilever products in India

Creating opportunity & removing barriers

Our value chain connects us to billions of women - from our employees within our workplace, to those within our extended supply chain and Customer Development function, through to consumers via our brands and reaching society at large through advocacy. Studies and research suggest that some of the strongest forces behind persistent gender gaps are harmful social norms and stereotypes about women and men.

Shaping these to be more supportive will be a powerful driver of progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment. In March 2017, we published a report which outlined how we are supporting women through our value chain. It also outlined our ambition to challenge harmful social norms and stereotypes across our business and in society at large.

We envision a world in which every woman can create the kind of life she wishes to lead, unconstrained by limiting norms and stereotypes - able to choose from the same opportunities as men, without fear of prejudice or judgment. In our vision, men too should be free from the confines of social norms and stereotypes. We believe that helping to create such a world will have great benefits - for society, and for Unilever.

How empowering women can transform the world

Including more women in the economic cycle has a positive impact on growth and the progress of families and communities - sometimes called a ripple effect1. Women do 60% of the world’s work and earn only 10% of the world’s income, yet they reinvest 90% of income into their families2.

We support the UN's Global Goal 5, which aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Achieving that goal is not just an end in itself: empowering women will play a crucial part in achieving all the UN's Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

The key to business growth

Empowered women play a vital part in creating the flourishing economies in which our business can grow. Worldwide, women control 64% of consumer spending and are the fastest growing group of consumers3. Building greater trust in our brands among our largest consumer base is critical – women now account for over 70% of our consumers.

We also have the opportunity to build on the crucial role women play in our supply chain, operations and distribution network. Unilever sources from increasingly large numbers of smallholder farmers, many of whom are women. As are around 46% of our managers. Further empowering women in our value chain makes our future more secure, while harnessing skills and capabilities that can drive innovation, improve our connection to consumers and add to our success in the marketplace.

Our strategy

We seek to advance the empowerment of women throughout our value chain - from our supply chain, to the workplace, to consumers and society at large.

To achieve this, we will:

  • Build a gender-balanced organisation with a focus on management
  • Promote safety for women in the communities where we operate
  • Enhance access to training and skills
  • Expand opportunities in our value chain
  • Work with others to challenge outdated gender norms and stereotypes.

Our approach recognises the fact that in many places and in many walks of life, women enjoy greater rights and opportunities than ever before - but that there remain significant gaps and challenges to achieving equality, such as discrimination, lack of access to jobs and opportunities for advancement, unequal pay, health and safety issues, and human trafficking. We aim to address these obstacles through Unilever initiatives, partnerships, thought leadership and advocacy.

Creating opportunities for women is a core priority for us and examples of our work in these fields can be found throughout our Sustainable Living Report, including in Fairness in the Workplace, Inclusive Business and Water. Achieving the systemic changes that will help empower women and girls is also a central theme of our partnerships work, such as our partnership with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH).

This aims to help improve the health and nutrition of 2.5 million people within smallholder communities in our extended supply chain, with a particular focus on female farmers, pregnant women and children through our Seeds of Prosperity programme.

Addressing outdated norms & stereotypes

Outdated, discriminatory cultural norms and gender stereotypes remain a powerful force acting against efforts to tackle barriers, in societies as a whole as well as in our work. One of the major influences on how women are perceived is the perpetuation of unhelpful gender stereotypes in advertising. In June 2016, we launched a ground-breaking commitment on Un-stereotyping Gender in Advertising, and we are working with our marketing and creative agencies to create more progressive and positive portrayals of women in our advertising and communications.

Brands including Dove, Axe, Knorr, Dirt is Good and Sunsilk are leading our campaign. Following the publication of our report on Opportunities for Women: Challenging harmful social norms and gender stereotypes to unlock women’s potential, we also intend to ramp-up efforts to ‘unstereotype’ mindsets in the workplace and supply chain.

Engaging with others

We continue to engage with cross-industry and multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the World Economic Forum, New Vision for Agriculture and the UN Global Compact.

We have aligned with the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, participating in working groups focused on tackling adverse norms and changing business culture. We also strongly support the World Economic Forum’s System Initiative on Gender, Education, and Work, which aims to help leaders understand the current state of gender parity and develop mechanisms to close gender gaps.

In 2015, we signed the Girl Declaration, and in 2013 endorsed the Women’s Empowerment Principles – a collaboration between the UN Global Compact and UN Women.

We are one of ten founding members of UN Women’s Private Sector Leadership Advisory Council to advance women’s rights and empowerment, launched in June 2014.

In 2014, we committed to UN Women’s HeForShe movement, which aims to achieve gender equality by 2030 and secure the commitment of 1 billion men globally to support women’s empowerment. In 2015, we supported its IMPACT 10x10x10 initiative that engages with decision makers in government, business and universities to drive change from the top, and our CEO Paul Polman became an IMPACT Champion.

Our commitment

By 2020, we will empower 5 million women by advancing opportunities for women in our operations, promoting safety, developing skills and expanding opportunities in our value chain.

Progress to date

We have improved our gender balance, with the proportion of female managers rising to 46% in 2016 from 38% in 2010.

In partnership with others, by 2016 we had enabled around 920,000 women to access initiatives aiming to promote their safety, develop their skills and expand their opportunities. This included around 72,000 Shakti micro-entrepreneurs in India and around 800,000 women on tea smallholdings and plantations in Kenya and India.

Our report, Opportunities for Women: Challenging harmful social norms and gender stereotypes to unlock women’s potential (PDF | 7MB) (published in March 2017), aims to demonstrate how Unilever is supporting gender equality across our value chain by challenging discriminatory norms and outdated stereotypes across the business and in society at large.

Future challenges

Addressing harmful social norms and gender stereotypes will take collective action from governments, civil society and business. Evidence and data collection is critical to ensure we develop a deeper understanding of those harmful norms, and of the successful approaches that can be put in place to cultivate more supportive ones.

Our Unstereotype initiative has been successful in demonstrating how we can use our influence to drive change in consumer perception through our advertising. We now need to keep working with others to bring the industry on board to drive accelerated societal change.

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3 WEF: World Economic Forum, 2016. The Global Gender Gap Report 2016

Transformational change - Discover how we're driving transformational change by eliminating deforestation, championing the role of women, supporting sustainable agriculture and smallholder farmers, and improving water, sanitation and hygiene.

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Targets & performance

We have set ambitious targets to empower 5 million women through a variety of initiatives.

Opportunities for Women
Our commitment

By 2020, we will empower 5 million women by advancing opportunities for women in our operations; promoting safety; providing up-skilling; and expanding opportunities in our retail operations.

Our performance

We have improved our gender balance, with the proportion of female managers reaching 46% in 2016. In partnership with others, by 2016 we had enabled around 920,000 women to access initiatives aiming to promote their safety, develop their skills or expand their opportunities.Ж

Our perspective

Our approach to empowering women is based on the tripod of rights, skills and opportunities. Women’s rights must be respected and women need to be given the skills and opportunities to succeed.

Increasing agricultural yields and securing our supplies can be better achieved if women have fair and equal access to skills and opportunities. The impact of economically empowering women has a transforming effect on lifting families out of poverty.

Women’s empowerment is a big opportunity for business growth but we also need entire systems change, driven both by our own business activities and initiatives but also requiring dialogue with key stakeholders at the global and national levels. The insights and perspectives we gain from others are critical to our understanding of women's issues and priorities as we continue to develop our policies and practices.

Ж Around 300,000 women have accessed initiatives under both the Inclusive Business and the Opportunities for Women pillars in 2016.

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  • On-Plan 5

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Key to our performance
  • Achieved

    This is the number of targets we have achieved

  • On-Plan

    This is the number of targets we are on track to achieve

  • Off-Plan

    This is the number of targets we are currently not on track

  • %

    Of target achieved

    This is the percentage of the target we are on track to achieve

Our targets

Please see Independent Assurance for more details of our assurance programme across the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

Build a gender-balanced organisation with a focus on management

We will build a gender-balanced organisation with a focus on management.

The percentage of persons of each sex who were Unilever managers was 54% male and 46% female by 2016.

Our Perspective

Since 2009, we have been committed to building a gender-balanced organisation. We set a clear ambition to have 50% women in management positions by 2020.

We continue to make progress, although work remains. By the end of 2016, 46% of our total management were women. At the most senior levels however, the ratios are not as high: among our Top 100 executives, 22% were women in 2016; and 43% (six out of 14) of the Board were female, compared with 50% in 2015.

Our initiatives have led to a significant uplift in the numbers of women being recruited and promoted. We need to maintain this pace in order to reach our goal by 2020.

Promote safety for women in communities where we operate

We will promote safety for women in the communities where we operate.

By 2016, we had enabled around 7,000 women to access initiatives that aimed to promote their safety in communities where we operate.

Our Perspective

We introduced a new target on safety in 2014 following our study in Kenya - which confirmed safety as a critical issue for women in the communities where we operate.

We continue to engage our workers and wider community through awareness-raising and training on sexual harassment and strengthened grievance mechanisms.

Our approach continues to be systematic and inclusive, and we work alongside the communities. We do not yet have all the answers so continue to partner with others to raise awareness, provide more information on what constitutes sexual harassment, and advance more opportunities for girls to engage in social activities.

We are working with UN Women to create a global violence-prevention framework to advance the implementation of human rights in our tea value chain in Kenya and other places. The programme aims to apply the global framework to Unilever’s supply chain and extend into the wider tea industry and other commodities over time.

Enhance access to training & skills

We will enhance access to training and skills across our value chain

By 2016, we had enabled around 836,000 women to access initiatives aiming to develop their skills.

Our Perspective

Our target is critical for expanding female participation in the economy.

Accessing training is one of the major barriers to women’s participation in training. This is why our training is designed to encourage the full and equal participation of women, for example by being held at convenient times in accessible locations. We are also working with partners, which helps us reach more women and encourages mutual learning.

We take a holistic approach when providing access to training and skills, offering complementary training wherever possible. For example, we are developing agricultural training for smallholder farming families which is supplemented by training on nutrition with the aim of improving dietary diversity. Similarly, we are aiming to roll out financial literacy training for smallholder farmers where we have previously delivered other types of training.

Expand opportunities in our value chain

  • We will expand opportunities for women in our value chain.

By 2016, we had enabled around 77,000 women to access initiatives aiming to expand their opportunities in our value chain.

  • We will increase the number of Shakti entrepreneurs that we recruit, train and employ from 45,000 in 2010 to 75,000 in 2015.

93% - 70,000 Shakti micro-entrepreneurs selling our products in India by end 2015.

We operate similar schemes in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Vietnam which we are also committed to expanding.

(This target is now part of the wider Expand Opportunities target above)

Our Perspective

From 2016 our Shakti ambitions are part of our wider target to expand opportunities for women in our value chain by 2020. Although we are on track to achieve this new larger target, we fell short of our original Shakti-specific target, reaching 70,000 rather than 75,000 women by 2015. In 2016 there were around 72,000 women active in the initiative.

Our Shakti programme in India is a win-win initiative that catalyses rural affluence while benefiting our business: Shakti equips women to distribute our products in more than 162,000 villages, reaching over 4 million rural households.

Shakti has become our model to reach out to rural consumers on typically low-incomes in developing and emerging markets. We are adapting this model in several South-East Asian, African and Latin American markets. For example, in Nigeria over 1,300 women are active selling our products as part of our Gbemiga initiative in 2016.

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