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What’s gone wrong? The Gender Gap is widening


Authored by Paul Polman

The World Economic Forum has just published its latest Gender Gap Report... and its findings make disturbing reading.

Paul Polman shares Global Goals with families

About the author

Paul Polman, former Unilever CEO

Paul Polman

Former CEO, Unilever

Paul Polman has been CEO of Unilever since January 2009. Under his leadership, the company has a ambitious vision to decouple its growth from its overall environmental footprint and increase its positive social impact through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

Not only is the news not what we had hoped for – some modest progress perhaps – it shows that we are actually going backwards. Instead of taking a mere 170 years to close the workplace gender gap at our current rate of ‘progress’, it will now take 217 years. Instead of talking to my grandchildren about achieving workplace equality, it looks like they will have to talk to their grandchildren. An entire generation skipped; just like that.

The road to 2030 is paved with good intentions. We all aspire to the aims of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

But if we are to achieve the world we want by 2030, we simply must create a gender-equal world. And by that I do not mean just focusing on the achievement of Goal 5 alone, the specific target on gender. Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls must happen across the SDGs to ensure their success. From poverty to sanitation to climate change.

It is our moral responsibility as today’s leaders – across all sectors, from business to government to civil society – to accelerate the pace of our actions to further advance the lives of women and girls everywhere, and reverse the widening gap.

It is in our own interest to do so

Equality for women in the labour force would add up to $28 trillion to the global economy by 2025. In a global economy calculated to be some $100 trillion and currently forecast to grow only modestly, this is a very significant opportunity (McKinsey Global Institute, 2015).

For Unilever, it is an imperative to invest in women. The business and social cases are inextricably linked. Women account for more than 70% of our sales; they control 64% of consumer spending and are the fastest-growing group of consumers in the world today.

We believe we’ve made significant strikes towards gender equality.

I am proud that nearly 50% of our managers, almost 40% of our Board and over a third of our executive team are women and that we are implementing targeted programmes aiming to change the lives for many women in our value chain – enabling them to develop their skills, promoting safety for them, or expanding their economic opportunities. Diverse projects ranging from breaking down barriers for women farmers by providing specialised training to working on financial inclusion programmes for women shop-owners in developing markets.

With actions like this and a plethora of programmes and projects across all sectors, from business to governments to civil society, how can it be that we have gone backwards and that the gender gap is widening?

Why are we slowing down where we should speed up?

Our own research and that of other leading authorities suggest that some of the strongest forces behind persistent gender gaps are harmful social norms and stereotypes that limit expectations of what women can or should do. Outdated norms that discriminate against women are all around us and they are deeply ingrained.

The UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment concluded that “changing norms should be at the top of the 2030 Agenda”. And we all have a role to play in challenging these adverse social norms and reshaping stereotypes.

At Unilever, we translated this into a vision (PDF 6.31 MB) of a world in which every woman and girl can create the kind of life she wishes to lead, unconstrained by harmful norms and stereotypes. And a world too, in which men are also free from the confines of adverse social norms and stereotypes of manhood and masculinity, and in which economies are growing and creating opportunities for men and women alike.

As a consumer goods company serving billions of consumers every day, we understand the drivers and motivations that create the norms lying behind people’s behaviour. We are striving to accelerate progress, addressing stereotypes and harmful behaviour by ‘unstereotyping’ our value chain – aiming to improve the lives of millions of women and girls.

For example, being one of the largest advertisers in the world, together with UN Women and over 20 other industry leaders, we have launched the Unstereotype Alliance to tackle the widespread prevalence of stereotypes that are often perpetuated through advertising at a systemic level, taking action through some of our brands:

Dove, with its well-established mission to help girls build their self-confidence, has reached already over 20 million girls across 139 countries, and is committed to improving the self-esteem of an additional 20 million by 2020.

Surf, our biggest laundry brand, together with Oxfam is addressing one of the most persistent social norms – the equitable distribution of unpaid domestic work. From London to Lagos, women tend to shoulder the burden of domestic work, constantly juggling multiple demands on their time.

The positive effects of our efforts go beyond those directly affected, rippling out to wider society. When we provide women with training and entrepreneurial opportunities in our distribution network, they become role models in their communities, showing it is possible to challenge limiting norms and stereotypes, and to succeed.

Equally, our programmes around sanitation, Lifebuoy handwashing with soap, sustainable agriculture and other issues are addressing cultural norms millions of women are facing in today’s world more persistently than ever.

No single company, industry or country can do it alone

The sheer width of the gap is too great. It requires collaboration and partnerships of an altogether different order – among businesses, governments and civil society – than we’ve managed in the past.

The Unstereotype Alliance is a great example of how strong partnerships can be built to create systematic change across an entire industry.

Concerted, consistent and continuous action is required and I urge leaders to apply a gender lens – and in particular, a social norms lens – to all their programmes, irrespective of which SDG they might address, even though the benefits might not necessarily be seen in the short term.

They are essential to bring about the transformation required and we surely cannot countenance our grandchildren having to make the embarrassing apology for their generation that we are having to make for ours.

First published on the Huffington Post on 2 November 2017

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