Opportunities for women

Unilever's work on opportunities for women supports

6 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Select one of the goals to find out how we're taking action in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Find out how we’re realising the business opportunity from the SDGs

Opportunities for women

We want to help create a fairer, more inclusive world. That means a world in which every woman and girl can create the kind of life she wishes to lead, unconstrained by harmful norms and stereotypes. We believe a world where women are economically empowered will be a fairer, happier and more prosperous place to live for everybody – and that our business will flourish in it.

An inclusive world needs business to be inclusive

We want to be an inclusive business – and we want to help create a more inclusive, prosperous and gender-equal world, in which no one is left behind, regardless of gender, age, race or ability.

Empowering and including women throughout our value chain is a vital part of this ambition – because at the moment, women are still far from achieving social, economic and political equality. In fact, at the current rate of progress, women will have to wait nearly 100 years to close the overall gender gap with men. Most challenging of all, according to the annual World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2020, is the economic sphere, which will take 257 years to close.

We have the opportunity to be the last generation that has to fight this inequality.

We want our business to be a leading force in closing the gender gap, and to challenge and change the harmful norms and stereotypes that are a barrier to women’s economic empowerment – and the adverse norms and stereotypes of masculinity that confine men too.

Transforming societies, and our business

Empowering women will transform individual lives, societies − and our business.

It’s essential to the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with their overarching ambition to leave no one behind.

And while empowering women and girls is the specific focus of SDG 5, Achieving Gender Equality, it is also a thread that stitches all the SDGs together. In particular, it underpins the SDGs that aim to improve access to skills and employment and the resulting economic empowerment this brings.

Our business, too, will be transformed by achieving gender equality and empowering women. Women are over 70% of our consumer base, and 50% of the talent pool from whom we recruit our workforce. We benefit from empowering women as discerning consumers with rising incomes and full freedom to choose how they spend. We already depend on women as creative, engaged employees and leaders, and as essential partners in our supply chain and route to market. By creating and supporting opportunities for women in society and the economy, we have the possibility to grow our markets, brands and business.

Empowering women, empowering everyone

In the same way that women's empowerment connects all the SDGs, enhancing opportunities for women is a theme which runs across our entire Unilever Sustainable Living Plan – a link we underlined in our Opportunities for Women White Paper (PDF | 7MB).

Creating diverse and inclusive workplaces. Ensuring women and girls are safe, and their human rights are respected. Including more women financially, and supporting women farmers to farm more sustainably. Empowering women through our brands. Closing the gap in skills, including digital skills.

All these elements, and more, help drive our business. To achieve these aims, we need to understand the barriers that can hold women back, and find ways to overcome them. That means putting a gender lens on our programmes when we design and implement them.

This vision of a fair, inclusive business also extends beyond gender. As just one example, in 2018 we set ourselves ambitious commitments to be the number one employer of choice for people with disabilities, and to increase the number of employees with disabilities to 5% of our total workforce. We have committed to achieving these worldwide, by 2025 – thereby contributing to the five Sustainable Development Goals which explicitly reference disability.

Our strategy

We believe that women’s empowerment is the single greatest enabler of human development and economic growth.

When women are guaranteed equal rights, skills and access to opportunities – and when the norms and stereotypes that hold women back are challenged and overcome – the effect is transformational. It benefits whole societies as well as individuals and their families – and it benefits our business.

Unlocking potential across our value chain

We have a great opportunity to help create this vision of unlocking women’s potential (PDF | 446KB) throughout our extended value chain and in society at large. We start with progressive policies and practices in our own workplace and supply chain operations. Building on this foundation, we collaborate with others to create opportunities for women in our extended supply chain, through our distribution networks, our brands and products. By engaging in partnership, thought leadership and advocacy, we unleash the power of collective action for sustainable, transformational change.

In our 2017 Opportunities for Women report (PDF | 7MB), we outlined how this approach across the value chain aims to:

  • 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 retail value chain
  • work at a systemic level to challenge outdated gender norms and stereotypes.

Promoting safety for women & girls

Women have the right to be free from violence, harassment and discrimination. Promoting safety for women and girls is a moral imperative, and it is key to women fulfilling their potential as individuals and as contributors to work, communities and economies.

Our work in this area, and our framework of policies and standards, are described in Promoting safety for women. It includes the ground-breaking work that led to UN Women, with our support, creating A Global Women’s Safety Framework in Rural Spaces (PDF | 7MB), which was made available to the global tea industry and other agricultural value chains in 2019.

A core priority across our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan

Creating opportunities for women is not an isolated goal – in fact, it runs right through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan and is a core element in many of our transformational sustainability aims.

Examples can be found throughout this report, including how Dove is helping to build self-esteem and body confidence in young people, how we’re enhancing access to training and skills for women in our agricultural supply chain via our Enhancing Livelihoods Fund, and how we’re creating economic opportunities for women to participate in our customer development network through our Shakti and Jaza Duka initiatives, described in Inclusive business.

Empowering women is also a vital component in our brand and strategic activities in areas including Health & hygiene − through initiatives such as Lifebuoy soap handwashing campaigns in neonatal clinics − and Improving nutrition. And it’s a central part of our drive to advance human rights and increase Fairness in the workplace within, and beyond, our business.

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 retail value chain.

Progress to date

  • We have improved our gender balance, with the proportion of female managers reaching 51% (50.7%) in 2019.
  • In partnership with others, by 2019 we had enabled 2.34 million* women to access initiatives aiming to promote their safety, develop their skills or expand their opportunities.

* Around 568,000 women accessed initiatives under both the Inclusive Business and the Opportunities for Women pillars in 2019

Future challenges

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2019 report shows that, while there may be improvements in some areas, it cannot be assumed that they will reduce the gap quickly enough. Women should not need to wait 100 years for gender equality, let alone 257 years for economic equality. There needs to be a shift from promises to action, and everyone has a role to play.

If we are to achieve the world we want by 2030, we must create a gender-equal society.

That means more than focusing on the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 5, the specific target on gender. We need to look at all the SDGs through a gender lens.

There are examples across the SDG agenda. Climate action, the focus of SDG 13, has a disproportionate impact on women and children, and they are 14 times as likely as men to die through extreme weather events and natural disasters.

Investment in public transportation, covered by SDG 12, yields large benefits for women, who tend to rely on public transport more than men do.

Indoor air pollution from using combustible fuels for household energy, a focus of SDG 7, caused 4.3 million deaths in 2012, with women and girls accounting for six out of every ten of these.

So as well as being holistic, action must be collaborative. We must maintain our own efforts to tackle gender barriers throughout our value chain. But deeply embedded harmful social norms and gender stereotypes will not disappear without collective action from governments, civil society, individuals and business.

Unilever wants to see women’s potential enabled and fulfilled.  Although we will not meet our goal of reaching 5 million women by 2020, our commitment remains as strong as ever. The world has changed dramatically since we launched our Enhancing Livelihoods goal in 2014, so we’ll need to capture this learning in the next company-wide targets we set as the USLP concludes.

We’re continuing to look for the best approaches to develop programmes that can make the most meaningful impact. That means new ways of measuring and managing our social impact cost-effectively and at scale. It also means new ways of partnering with others, including government and civil society. In particular, it requires us to harness the collective influence of the wider business community so that we can help change the way the world works for women for the better.

We describe the four main areas we are focusing on in Putting our strategy into action.

Taking action

We take action to advance diversity, promote safety for women, enhance training and skills, and expand opportunities in our retail value chain.


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 value chain.

Our performance

We have improved our gender balance, with the proportion of female managers reaching 51% (50.7%) in 2019. In partnership with others, by 2019 we had enabled 2,345,888* (around 2.34 million) women to access initiatives aiming to promote their safety, develop their skills or expand their opportunities.

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.

To protect rights, in December 2018 A Global Women’s Safety Framework in Rural Spaces was published. This groundbreaking guidance was created by UN Women, with our support. In 2019, we published Implementation Guidance to facilitate wider take-up of the Framework. Increasing agricultural yields and securing our supplies can be better achieved if women have fair and equal rights and access to skills and opportunities. Economically empowering women has a transformative effect on entire families and communities, helping to lift them out of poverty.

To achieve women’s empowerment and business growth, we need entire systems change, driven by our own business activities and initiatives alongside multi-sector collaboration at global and national levels.

Although we will not meet our goal of reaching 5 million women by 2020, our commitment remains as strong as ever. In tandem with advocacy for system change, we’re continuing to look for the best approaches to develop programmes that can make the most meaningful impact.

* Around 568,000 women accessed initiatives under both the Inclusive Business and the Opportunities for Women pillars in 2019


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  • On-Plan 1

  • Off-Plan 2

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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 women managers in Unilever reached 51% (50.7%) in 2019.


Our perspective

We set a clear ambition to have 50% women in management positions by 2020, and reached 51% (50.7%) in 2019.

Although reaching just over 50% marks an important milestone, there is still work to be done to achieve a balanced representation of women. This is particularly true at senior management level where women are still underrepresented: at 38% on our Board, 33% on the Unilever Leadership Executive and 20% of senior management.

To facilitate progress, we’re enabling new mothers and fathers to take paid leave through our Maternity and Paternity Support Programme. And to remove the barriers facing any individual living with disability, we’ve set ambitious commitments to achieve by 2025: to be the number one employer of choice for people with disabilities and to increase the number of employees with disabilities to 5% of our total workforce.


Advancing diversity & inclusion

Promote safety for women in communities where we operate

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

By 2019, we had enabled around 10,750 women to access initiatives that aimed to promote their safety.


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. Our approach to this issue is systematic and inclusive and we work alongside communities. We continue to partner with expert external organisations to further strengthen this work by raising awareness and providing information.

In 2016, we started a global partnership with UN Women. As a result of the joint work on tea estates in Assam, India and Kericho, Kenya, in December 2018 A Global Women’s Safety Framework in Rural Spaces was published. In 2019 we published Implementation Guidance to facilitate wider take-up of the Framework.

Through the partnership with UN Women and our supplier McLeod Russel, we’ve been working to prevent gender-based violence in Assam, and extended this programme to ten additional suppliers in 2019.


Promoting safety for women

Enhance access to training & skills

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

By 2019, we had enabled 2,190,392* (around 2.19 million) women to access initiatives aiming to develop their skills.


Our perspective

Access is one of the major barriers to women participating in training. So our training is designed to encourage the full and equal participation of women, for example, by being held at convenient times in accessible locations or by providing online courses. We’re 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. For instance, we are developing agricultural training for smallholder farming families which is supplemented by education on nutrition with the aim of improving dietary diversity.

More of our brands such as Sunsilk, TRESemmé, Radiant and Fair & Lovely are developing sustainable living purposes around skills and confidence-building. This target is the biggest contributor to our goal of reaching 5 million women. Although we will not achieve this by 2020, our commitment remains firm and we’re continuing to look for the best routes to deliver meaningful impact.

* Around 568,000 women accessed initiatives under both the Inclusive Business and the Opportunities for Women pillars in 2019

Enhancing women's access to training & skills Enhancing entrepreneurial & life skills through our brands

Expand opportunities in our retail value chain

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

By 2019, we had enabled over 144,000 women to access initiatives aiming to expand their opportunities in our retail 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 were selling our products in India by end 2015.

(Since 2016 this target has been part of our wider value chain target above.)


Our perspective

In 2019 our Shakti network in India grew to around 118,000 women entrepreneurs. Shakti is a programme that catalyses rural affluence while benefiting our business by equipping women to distribute our products in villages. It’s become our model to reach out to rural consumers on typically low incomes in developing and emerging markets such as South-East Asia, Africa and Latin America, where equivalent Shakti programmes are being scaled up.

We’re also continuing to explore new models that deliver a positive social impact, including through public-private models that support social entrepreneurship, such as TRANSFORM, a joint initiative between Unilever and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). For example Kasha is a mobile e-commerce and content platform founded in Rwanda to sell and deliver women’s health and personal care products through an innovative system. doctHERs is a social enterprise that matches female doctors to the needs of underserved communities and delivers high-quality health services and products to women across rural Pakistan.


Expanding opportunities in our retail value chain
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