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Knowledge is power: how data is unlocking women's potential


The gender gap is everywhere. How do we use data to find the best ways to close it – and unlock women's potential? We developed the Lean Data Gender Toolkit with our partner Acumen to help businesses, investors and others make gender-smart decisions. Here's what we've learnt.

Woman processing tea.

How do we know when we're making a difference?

Poverty affects men and women differently.

But it isn't always easy to understand how or why. That means that it can be hard to design and deliver programmes, products and services with any certainty that you are reaching the people that you most want to reach and having the best possible impact.

Measuring and understanding the differences between the ways women and men experience poverty – the ‘gender dimensions’ of being poor – is critical to delivering effective programmes.

And that's vital to Unilever. We are committed to empowering 5 million women by 2020 across our entire value chain, and driving gender equality is a core strategic priority. We need to unlock the potential of women as decision-makers, employees, entrepreneurs and leaders to achieve our business, as well as social, ambitions.

Data should empower us, not hold us back

Social performance data is not easy to come by. We worked with anti-poverty non-profit organisation Acumen – a longstanding partner – to develop a simple and actionable approach to measuring and understanding these gender dimensions of poverty.

We have tested this data collection system on our programmes. We found it useful and believe it can help others who share our aims.

We have published our findings in a report, 'A Lean Data How-To Guide' (PDF 7.59 MB). The report shows how we used Acumen’s ‘Lean Data’ technology and, crucially, how we generated a repeatable survey tool that others can use. The tool is light and easy to use – relatively quick to deploy with rapid feedback.

So far, we've learnt that...

1. The approach works

The ‘Lean Data’ tool makes it possible to collect high-quality data that offers gender insights in a rapid, cost-efficient way. The data, once gathered, helps us move beyond general statements of empowerment towards a deeper understanding of the nuances.

We learnt that women were much more likely to hear about a programme or service from a relative or acquaintance, and to take part if a friend was already engaged. Men were more likely to hear about an initiative through more traditional marketing mechanisms, such as advertisements or sales staff.

This gives us insights into the channels through which we can engage more women and encourage them to participate in our programmes. And the data helped us understand that women were much more likely to indicate that they were accessing the programme or service in question for the first time: more than half of women as compared to around a quarter of men.

Feature image - The approach works
Our Jaza Duka initiative in Kenya is a strategic micro-credit partnership with Mastercard that supports small retailers. Though it does not have a specific gender component, our research found that 100% of female respondents indicated an increased confidence in their abilities, with 96% reporting greater respect from their families and spouses and 87% reporting an increased active contribution to important family decisions – thanks to the experience gained through the Jaza Duka initiative.

Read more about our work to empower small-scale retailers.

2. This is a work in progress

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for every scenario. But the more we collectively build and share our data, the better equipped we will all be to understand our gender impacts, and harness the power of partnership to address them.

Nuance is crucial here. For instance, across the five projects studied in the report, both men and women reported increased earning, with a higher percentage increase for men than for women – and both men and women highlighted a greater income for their family as their most important motivation.

We already believed that if women are economically empowered they are more likely to invest in their families. The survey findings confirmed our belief that women saw investing in education and health as key drivers of change.

Feature image - This is a work in progress
Project Shakti is our last-mile distribution programme designed to empower women while expanding our reach into rural areas. From its origins in India, the programme has been delivered in many countries worldwide, including Colombia, which was included in our survey. We found that 65% of respondents reported earning more income after working with Shakti – but that 94% of respondents considered the increase in income only “a little more”. This shows there is room to further improve the business model.

3. Everyone should bring a gender lens to their work

Gender impacts should not be considered in isolation, taking a silo approach. They should be integrated into every programme and service – and getting insights on gender impacts is not resource-intensive when a ‘Lean Data’ methodology is used. The Unilever/Acumen toolkit will help us to get the most out of our programmes. In this way, we can contribute better to creating a more gender-equal and inclusive world and unlock women's economic potential – building the future success of women, communities and our business.

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