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Nine ways we're making Unilever a more gender-balanced business


In 2010, we set a target of achieving a 50/50 gender balance in managerial roles across Unilever’s global business by the end of 2020. We’re pleased to say we’ve just reached that milestone early. Here’s a closer look at how we got there.

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We’re on a longstanding mission to drive gender equality in the workplace, and with 50% of managerial roles across Unilever’s global business now represented by women, we’re making positive progress.

This 50/50 split is a result that delivers on a goal we set back in 2010, at which point women accounted for 38% of our managerial roles. Since then we’ve introduced a series of programmes, partnerships and policies – all designed to support women within the company and break down any barriers to their recruitment, retention and development.

“Diversity & Inclusion is one of the three things that we want Unilever to be famous for,” says CEO Alan Jope. “This means making sure our business is fair, attracting and retaining the very best talent and helping them unlock their full potential.”

Here are nine changes we’ve made to create a more balanced business

1. We’re leading change from the top

CEO Alan Jope chairs Unilever’s Global Diversity Board. The group comprises senior leaders from across Unilever and is accountable for setting our Diversity & Inclusion strategy, giving direction and acting as a catalyst for action.

Members of the Global Diversity Board are tasked with driving gender balance within their parts of the business – and their results depend on it. Improving gender representation is written into their annual business and development targets.

We also have a network of D&I Champions: nearly 100 employees who help power this agenda through collaboration worldwide.

2. We’re improving numbers and culture at the same time

When we first started working towards our ambitions of a more gender-balanced business, the prevailing wisdom was that a culture shift had to be in place before the numbers could change.

Recognising the deep connection between an inclusive culture and a thriving workforce, we decided to take a more holistic approach. While working on cultural changes, we also applied data on current and historical challenges to set stretching targets for every market and function within Unilever.

The Unilever Leadership Executive checks progress against these targets every month, and our Global Diversity Board reviews updates three times a year to ensure we stay on track.

3. We’re unstereotyping our business as well as our brands

In 2016 we launched a global commitment to move our advertising away from stereotypes, recognising that they’re often outdated, unhelpful and, in some cases, harmful.

We turned the lens inward to our business too, commissioning a study to understand how stereotypes affected 8,000 of our employees. The results made tough reading – 60% of women and 49% of men said they felt stereotypes had held them back at work.

We took swift action, and Unstereotype the Workplace is now a global theme across Unilever for all our work to shatter limiting norms.

4. We’re addressing unconscious bias

In 2018 we began a partnership with Professor Iris Bohnet of Harvard University, which set out to put Unilever at the cutting edge of results-driven, scientific approaches to tackle unconscious bias.

With Professor Bohnet’s guidance, we introduced a metric called the Gender Appointment Ratio, which looked at the recruitment track records of some of our senior leaders over a five-year period, measuring how many men they had hired compared with the number of women.

Presenting line managers with the big picture of their recruitment decisions improves their awareness, triggers conversations around the issue, and helps them make unbiased choices next time the opportunity arises.

5. We’re offering better support for new parents – globally

In 2018 we completed the roll-out of our Global Maternal Wellbeing standard, which guarantees employees 16 weeks’ paid maternity leave, wherever they’re based. In 54% of countries, that meant going beyond regulatory requirements.

And because we recognise the valuable role of men as care-givers too, the same year we also launched our Global Paternity Leave standard. It enables new fathers to take three weeks’ paid paternity leave and is available to same-sex couples and those who choose to adopt.

6. We’re making flexible working work

All employees are entitled to request flexible working, and it’s something we’re promoting throughout the business to give people more control over how, when and where they work.

Our first job share at vice president level is proving a success, both for the business and for the women who share the role, giving them space to balance their careers with their personal purpose and responsibilities. Between them, Shelagh Muir and Jane Maciver share the role of VP R&D Strategy, Portfolio & Operations. They work three days per week each, leading a team of people based in multiple global locations.

“Our experience with job sharing has been a win–win situation for us personally and career-wise,” says Shelagh. “Two engaged, enthusiastic brains genuinely bring value to the business, and on my off-day I have space to live my purpose, working for a charity which helps people with mental health problems too.”

7. We’re tackling tricky hot spots

In 2017, we identified the areas within Unilever facing the greatest challenges in terms of achieving a gender-balanced workforce. We’ve since delved deeper to add granularity to our data, so we can refine how these historically male-dominated functions or markets can make changes.

In Supply Chain, for example, we have started to increase representation of women in the function by accelerating the development of existing female leaders and working with recruitment specialists to build proactive talent pipelines. We’ve also established a Supply Chain female mentoring programme.

Meanwhile in Finance we have adopted a performance management framework for gender representation, adding targets for directors to take leadership on creating more diverse teams.

8. We’re seeing a shift in senior roles

In Supply Chain, one of our ‘hot spots’ for gender balance, policies to support balanced internal promotions and external hiring, and unbiased assessments for senior leadership roles have made a big impact.

Female representation in vice president positions improved from 17% in December 2015 to 30% in December 2018.

We’ve also made some encouraging progress in leadership roles at our factories – traditionally a very male-dominated sector. We moved from 11% female factory leaders in 2015 to 20% in 2018. And at our tea estates, 30% of leadership roles are now held by women.

9. We know we’ve still got work to do

We’re delighted to have reached a 50/50 gender balance in managerial roles worldwide. But we want our business to grow, and we firmly believe that empowering women and unlocking their potential is part of how we’ll achieve sustainable, equitable growth.

“Today, we’ve succeeded in reaching gender balance at management level, but our work doesn't stop there, and we will continue to be a driving force in closing the gender gap everywhere,” says Chief HR Officer Leena Nair.

“A thriving society is one where women have equal access to rights, skills and opportunities. If half the population are being held back, how are we all going to be able to move forward?” Leena adds.

UNI Gender Balance infographic
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