Skip to content
A woman standing beside a wooden fence and smiling

Gender equality and women's empowerment

Average read time: 13 minutes

We’re transforming our workplaces, our value chain and society at large by applying a gender lens to everything we do in pursuit of our belief that no woman should be left behind.

Two women in animated discussion over their laptops

The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2021 shows that, at the current rate of progress, women will have to wait around 135 years to close the overall gender gap with men.

This is not nearly fast enough. What’s holding equality back?

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. Women face too many barriers to access, their rights are not respected, and they are too often prevented from fulfilling their potential. Outdated norms that discriminate against women are all around us, and they are deeply ingrained.

Tackling the issues

Challenging and changing those norms is therefore a vital part of our Unilever Compass strategy, which includes gender as a critical component in our goals on culture and leadership.

We're harnessing our business, our influence and our partnerships to drive action in the key areas of respecting rights, building skills and creating opportunities for women. That means taking a holistic approach that works to build equality and empowerment throughout our value chain and beyond.

Gender equality in our own workplace

Our model for action makes clear that we can only help make the changes we want to see in society if we ensure our own house is in order by focusing on our workplaces and operations. Gender is at the heart of our strategy for achieving equity in our policies and practices, our employee experience, talent recruitment and selection, and representation and retention. See a beacon of diversity and inclusion for more detail beyond gender.

We’re taking action across our workplace by progressing our efforts on women in leadership, equal pay and the gender pay gap, via our campaign to #Unstereotype our workplaces and through our framework of inclusive policies.

Women in leadership

52% Of our managers are women

Some of our longest-running programmes have focused on leadership and gender balance, enabling us to achieve gender balance at management level in 2019 and 2020. In 2021 this shifted slightly, with women representing 52% of our management employees.

We’ve made progress through sustained leadership accountability and awareness building, clear targets and measurement, as well as programmes to recruit, retain and develop female talent, internal and external communications and engagement, and our network of diversity and inclusion champions. But we know we have more to do. At our most senior level, the Unilever Leadership Executive (ULE), women comprised 31% in 2021, while at senior management level (those reporting to ULE), 27% were women. At the end of 2021, women made up 36% of our total workforce of 148,000. See our Annual Report for further detail.

Through our Unilever Compass goal, we’ve set out to eliminate any bias in our practices and policies. We know that biases are most harmful when they affect key decisions, such as appointments and promotions. We want to be at the cutting edge of using results-driven, scientific approaches to tackling bias. To address gender balance, for example, we’ve used a metric called the Gender Appointment Ratio (GAR) to present our senior leaders with their track record on appointments over a five-year period – raising their awareness and helping them make unbiased choices.

In addition, hiring managers must use ‘balanced slates’ (ensuring under-represented groups are included in the candidate pool so there’s a level playing field of talented people to promote). And through our online coaching programme run by specialist INSEAD coaches, we’re continuing to help women leaders progress their careers.

Equal pay for equal work

We believe in paying for performance with clear reward policies and have a long-standing commitment to equal pay for equal work. Our no discrimination principle is set out as one of five principles in our Framework for Fair Compensation. It’s a key part of our commitment to developing an inclusive culture and respecting the contribution of all employees regardless not just of gender, but of age, race, disability or sexual orientation.

Our compensation structures are intended to be gender neutral, with any pay differences between employees in similar jobs fairly reflecting levels of individual performance and skill. We review our pay structures in each country annually as part of our Framework’s compliance process, helping us identify any average pay differences between genders (a ‘gender pay gap’).

Our analysis of the average pay gap helps us identify any areas of gender representation imbalance, such as in the types of jobs held by women compared to men. We use this information to focus on where we can create more balanced gender representation.

We have more work to do to continue improving our gender balance and related gender pay gaps at various levels and in various countries throughout the business. To achieve this, it’s essential to understand how the proportion of women in the workforce varies across job levels as this has a significant impact on average pay differences.

For example, at Work Level 1, our non-management ‘blue-collar’ grade, women made up 21% of our employee population in 2021. In contrast, at Work Level 1 for our non-management, ‘white-collar’ grade, women made up 49% of the population. We see a broad trend across our business of a lower pay gap in countries with a larger female Unilever workforce.

UK gender pay report

Unilever UK’s Gender Pay Gap Report

In the UK, we are required to publish a gender pay gap report. Unilever in the UK’s fifth report shows that median pay is 3.8% in favour of women. The report also provides an update on our gender strategy and the actions we’re taking to ensure women can thrive at every stage of their careers.

Raise living standards describes how we’re applying the principles of a living wage to our workforce and suppliers.

Support for parents

Building an inclusive workplace includes supporting new parents, especially as not all countries have rights or policies to ensure time off. Our Maternity and Paternity Support Programme helps employees make the transition to parenthood.

16 Weeks’ paid maternity leave as a minimum, worldwide

Our Global Maternal Wellbeing Standard gives returning mothers access to facilities that allow them to nurse their baby and to have all the flexibility they need to return to the workplace. Among other measures, it entitles all employees to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave as a minimum.

Through our Global Paternity Leave Standard, fathers, including same-sex couples and those who choose to adopt, can take three weeks’ paid paternity leave. We're also exploring ways to help parents make the transition back to work after parental leave. We're piloting a Global Parental Coaching Programme, which offers one-to-one coaching for returning mothers – we aim to include fathers as well once we’ve developed the pilot further.

Across our business, our value chain and society

In communities, businesses and societies, women and girls experience gender inequities that limit their opportunities, stifle their voices, and constrain their agency. Patriarchal social and institutional structures continue to place women and girls at a disadvantage – and that will only change through concerted action.

Worldwide, women account for 64% of consumer spending and are the fastest-growing group of consumers. Equality for women in the global labour force would add up to $28 trillion to the global economy by 2025, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. That’s a huge opportunity for any business.

We want to continue to lead the way as a business, proactively creating initiatives that have the needs of women and girls in mind, and using our voice and influence to drive change in our value chain and in wider society. That means applying a gender lens to everything we do, and basing our approach on respecting rights, building skills and creating opportunity.

This transformation will not only help build a fairer world – it will drive inclusive economic growth across society.

Respecting rights

The cover of Unilever’s Human Rights Report 2020

Respecting human rights and tackling gender-based violence

Everything we do is underpinned by a deep and unfaltering commitment to respect and promote all internationally recognised human rights. That includes respecting and promoting women's rights, including their right to safety, land rights and freedom from harassment.

Our business is founded on respect for human rights – and we know equal rights and safety for women are the building blocks for inclusive development, and for a fairer world. We aim to advance human rights in our own operations and throughout our value chain. We’re advocating increased investment and policies and partnerships that tackle gender-based violence, in particular by addressing some of the systemic root causes, including harmful norms and stereotypes.

And through Principle 2 of our People and Nature Policy (Respecting and promoting human rights), we’re committed to engaging with our suppliers and to working through partnerships and collaboration to scale up efforts and drive the implementation of improved working and living conditions, particularly by protecting vulnerable workers (including migrant, temporary and informal workers), eradicating forced and child labour, and safeguarding land and community rights. In many of these areas, women are disproportionately affected.

Embedding gender in our sustainability initiatives

Our Gender Equity Framework helps us consider gender in the design of our programmes.

Skills and opportunities, throughout our value chain

We’re also committed to empowering women by helping them build their skills. Our Unilever Compass includes goals on increasing our spend with diverse businesses and helping small and medium-sized enterprises grow.

Across our value chain, we provide women – employees, farmers, retailers, entrepreneurs and consumers – with access to training and to financial and digital assets to succeed in the workforce. We want to see more education and ‘reskilling’ (ie closing the digital skills gap) for those most excluded from the labour market, including women and girls, young people, and people from marginalised communities, as part of our Unilever Compass future of work strategy.

Creating more equitable access to opportunity is also critical. We invest in business opportunities for women in our supply chains, distribution networks and markets. We’re calling for more collaboration across and within sectors to stimulate economic inclusion for women by closing the digital and financial inclusion gaps. And for public and private investors to redirect additional capital towards more inclusive business and ‘gender-smart’ business models.

Expanding opportunities in our retail value chain

Empowered women play a vital role in reaching our consumers and enabling our business to grow. By building skills among our small-scale distributors and retailers, we're creating new opportunities for women while strengthening our business.

Our products reach consumers through millions of retail outlets in more than 190 countries, as well as through direct sales from micro-entrepreneurs. This distribution network is essential to our growth ambitions. It’s also one of our biggest opportunities to create a positive social impact, including through creating opportunities for the many women who work in it.

We estimate that women own or operate 30–40% of the outlets in what is known as ‘traditional trade’, the many small stores, kiosks or stalls that sell our products the world over. And there are potentially millions of new opportunities for women to enhance their livelihoods by helping us reach consumers in new ways − including in remote or hard-to-reach areas, through what is known as ‘last-mile distribution’. Our long-standing Shakti initiative in India is a good example.

We help women throughout our distribution network address the factors that can hold them back – such as a lack of training and skills, lack of childcare, social attitudes and financial exclusion – while improving their access to markets, information and financing. We do this directly through our programmes, or in partnership with civil society organisations, governments and financial institutions.

In Kenya for example, we’re working with retailers through Jaza Duka, a strategic partnership with Mastercard with support from the CEO Partnership for Economic Inclusion. Jaza Duka digitises the processes of buying supplies and selling goods, so the small-scale retailers involved (more than half of whom are women) can build the credentials they need to access short-term working capital loans.

Empowering women farmers, strengthening our supply chain

An illustration of a woman picking fruit from a bush to put into a basket

Farmers need knowledge – and not just of sustainable agricultural practices. Smallholder farmers draw on a wide range of agricultural and business skills, including entrepreneurship and finance. Key skills in areas such as nutrition, sanitation and hygiene can also make a huge difference to farmers’ lives and to the communities they live in. But all too often, women and girls are left behind when it comes to education. Making sure they have access to training and skills is critical to expanding female participation in the economy and to closing the gender gap.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, if women had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men, yields on women’s farms could increase by as much as 20%–30%. So by helping women overcome the barriers they face from harmful social norms and stereotypes, and gain the skills they need to unlock their potential, we have the opportunity to achieve a huge positive social impact.

By training women farmers in the sustainable practices that help increase biodiversity, enrich soils and improve watersheds, better yields can come alongside better stewardship of the environment. We've developed an approach that enables us to reach women farmers through:

  • financial support for farmer training programmes, delivered by suppliers and NGOs
  • premium prices for suppliers who invest in farmer training and provide quality planting material, such as high-yield seeds
  • funding for technical solutions that improve productivity and environmental sustainability
  • development of business and life-skill programmes (ie financial literacy, hygiene and nutrition training modules with experts)
  • access to labour- and time-saving devices such as cook-stoves and clothes washing equipment.

Building on our brand connections to empower women

Many of the people who buy and use our products are women – so we see a great opportunity to harness our brands to help achieve our aim of empowering women by challenging gender norms, building skills, and enabling everyone to unlock their full potential. Our Unilever Compass goal sets out to advance gender equity as well as improving health and wellbeing.

Our Beauty & Wellbeing, Personal Care and Home Care brands – Sunsilk, Dove and Sunlight for instance – have developed sustainable living purposes around enabling access to skills and training, building confidence and helping to recognise the fact that unpaid domestic work is disproportionately done by women − and that helping reduce and redistribute the burden of household chores can unlock women’s time. See Championing inclusion for more.

We need collective action on gender equality

Harmful social norms and stereotypes place limits on women. We want to break those barriers down throughout our entire value chain. We believe every woman and girl should be able to create the kind of life she wishes to lead, unconstrained by harmful norms and stereotypes. Just as importantly, we believe in a world in which men and boys are also free from the confines of adverse social norms and stereotypes of manhood and masculinity – a world in which economies are growing and creating opportunities for men and women alike.

We're also working with others to bring about systems change – because cultivating fair and balanced gender norms and progressive portrayals of women and girls calls for collective action. And it’s crucial that men and boys are also part of any movement to build positive cultural change.

Stakeholders across sectors need to work together, and business must be part of the solution. We participate in platforms that help us bring insights into Unilever and share our insights with the wider world. We’ve aligned with the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment and participated in working groups focused on tackling adverse norms and changing business culture. Through UN Women’s HeForShe movement we’re committed to driving the advancement of women, by encouraging men and boys as agents of change and taking action against negative inequalities faced by women and girls.

We’re part of the steering committee for the Generation Equality Forum, a civil society-centred, multi-stakeholder gathering to create urgent action for gender equality. Through its Action Coalition on Economic Justice and Rights, Technology and Innovation and Gender-Based Violence, we’ve committed to creating safe and empowering places for women through the Women’s Safety Accelerator Fund.

And we’re co-founders of the Unstereotype Alliance – a UN Women-led initiative in partnership with Unilever and industry leaders including WPP, IPG, Facebook, Google, Mars, Microsoft and Safaricom, which aims to banish stereotypical portrayals of gender in advertising and all brand-led content.

Back to top