Opportunities for women

This work supports the following UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Quality Education
  • Gender Equality
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • Reduced Inequalities
  • Partnership For The Goals
  1. Home
  2. ...
  3. Opportunities for women
  4. Challenging harmful gender norms

Challenging harmful gender norms

Outdated social norms and stereotypes can prevent women from achieving their full potential. By working with our brands, throughout our value chain, and with partners across industry and society, we aim to challenge harmful gender norms and empower women.

Man washing clothes in river

No limits

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. These barriers discriminate against women. They are all around us, and they are deeply ingrained.

What's more, these outdated norms are holding back the global economic growth and social progress that will come from women's empowerment and gender equality - the growth and progress that are at the heart of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. The UN Secretary-General’s recent High-Level Panel on Women concluded: “Changing norms should be at the top of the 2030 Agenda”. We agree.

We want to use our influence, insight and expertise to challenge these adverse social norms and gender stereotypes - in our business, and in society at large. It is a central element of our Opportunities for Women strategy, which also embraces access to rights, skills, resources and jobs, and livelihoods across our full value chain - including through Advancing diversity and inclusion in our own business. And we believe that challenging those social norms can have a transformational impact.

How we’re challenging social norms

Our strategy aims to drive change in four main ways:

  • by using our influence as one of the world’s biggest advertisers – not just to change the way we market our own products, but also to advocate and partner for change across the industry
  • by building a diverse business and value chain, in which women are empowered and act as role models for change 
  • by developing sustainable living brands that are progressing gender equality and women´s empowerment 
  • and by ensuring, in our business and through our programmes, that everyone, including men, is part of the movement to build positive cultural change.

Our vision of freedom

In all this work, we’re guided by our vision (PDF | 7MB) 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 in which men, too, are free from the confines of adverse social norms and stereotypes of manhood and masculinity.

That's also a world in which economies are growing and creating opportunities for men and women alike. One in which people - and our business - can flourish.

Our definition of gender

We share the definition of gender used by the World Health Organization (WHO). Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed.

For a fuller definition, see the World Health Organization.

Unstereotype: driving change

We're convinced that business generally - including ours - can help change consumer behaviour and challenge social norms. That means changing the images we see, and the words we use, so we reflect the real aspirations, achievements and interests of women and men alike. Our Unstereotype initiative plays a vital role in this.

Why we’re unstereotyping our advertising – & calling on others to join us

Aline Santos

Aline Santos is our Executive Vice President of Global Marketing and our Head of Diversity & Inclusion.

“Gender stereotypes used to be a staple of advertising. In some cases, they still are, despite the fact that the world has changed, people’s lives have changed – and gender identity has changed, too. Stereotypes are becoming irrelevant. Consumers increasingly say they resent them. But too much advertising has not moved with the times.

We know our own business has, in the past, fallen back on stereotypes of men and women and their roles. But the crucial part of that phrase is ‘in the past’. We’re absolutely committed to evolving the way we market our products. We’ve started already, with our Unstereotype initiative, launched in 2016, which has challenged every single one of our global brands to move away from unhelpful stereotypes.

For some brands this is not new. Dove, for example, has been championing real beauty since 2004.

Others have changed their positioning to be more relevant today, like Axe/Lynx’s new Find Your Magic campaign, which embraces the individuality of real, modern men. Since we began Unstereotype, many other brands have embraced its creative freedom and the chance to make a deeper connection with the people who buy our products.

Personally, I love the fact that we are able to use the influence of our brands and our marketing reach to challenge these stereotypes.

But this isn’t just about doing the right thing for society – it’s also the right thing for our business. When consumers tell us they want fresh, progressive depictions of men and women, we need to listen. How else can we expect to build meaningful relationships with them?

Already, progressive advertisements are found to be 25% more effective than those featuring more traditional portrayals of gender. They also deliver better-branded impact. So, beneath the vital societal reasons for change, there’s a compelling business case no brand can afford to ignore.”

Moving an industry - the Unstereotype Alliance

Diversity icon

Unstereotype Alliance launched

Of course, any single business can only reach so far in tackling stereotypes that ail the industry and society. To make an impact at greater scale, we need everyone to embrace it. In 2017, at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, we joined forces with UN Women to launch the Unstereotype Alliance, which brings together industry leaders across creative, marketing and media to take collective, urgent action in eliminating outdated stereotypes in advertising and driving long-term, positive cultural change.

We believe this is a chance to make a real difference at an industry level – and to address some of the barriers that limit people’s potential.

Stereotypes reflect deep-rooted ideas of femininity and masculinity. Negative, diminished conceptions of women and girls are one of the greatest barriers for gender equality and we need to tackle and change those images wherever they appear. Advertising is a particularly powerful driver to change perceptions and impact social norms. UN Women is excited to partner with the foremost industry shapers in this Alliance to challenge and advance the ways women are represented in this field.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women

Our brands: leading the way on Unstereotype

Through our brands, we have the chance to reach billions of people every day. That gives us an enormous opportunity to challenge stereotypes – watch how some of our biggest brands are leading the way.

Brooke Bond #SpeakYourHeart: tackling tensions globally

Beginning with their prize-winning campaign featuring 6 Pack – India’s first transgender band – Brooke Bond has been spreading the message of inclusiveness, portraying gender authentically and encouraging people to become more accepting, break barriers and bond over a cup of tea. Watch the #SpeakYourHeart advertisement.

Dove: #MyBeautyMySay: real women, real stories

Dove’s #MyBeautyMySay campaign features stories of amazing women who stand up for their own beauty, refusing to let comments about their looks hold them back. Find out more about #MyBeautyMySay or watch the video.

Sunsilk: Hijab Recharge

A young taekwondo athlete who is also a proud hijab wearer helps Sunsilk continue to provide unstereotypical role models, with its new range for hijab wearers called Hijab Recharge. Sunsilk positions her as a source of inspiration, not only for hijab wearers but also for other girls who want to challenge social norms and craft their own exploration journey. See the Sunsilk Hijab video.

Knorr: Love at First Taste

Knorr wanted to reflect how cooking has become much more inclusive and, by doing so, be relevant, inspirational and progressive. The Love at First Taste campaign appealed to millennials by reflecting the shared love of cooking and portraying men and women cooking for each other.

Axe #IsItOKForGuys

Men face stereotyping too. Axe seeks to readjust ‘toxic’ portrayals of masculinity and help liberate men to feel it’s OK to be themselves. Watch the #IsitOKforGuys advertisement.

Hellmann's: On the side of food

Who are Hellmann's consumers? People who are defined by their passion for food, not their gender or background. Watch the Hellmann’s #OnTheSideOfFood advertisement.

How unpaid work holds women back

SLP money icon

Potential uplift in global economic output - if women’s unpaid care work became paid

Laundry, cooking, cleaning, collecting water and caring for people – in some parts of the world, these unpaid tasks in the home can take up to six hours a day. They’re the necessities of life and we should all be responsible for them. But all too often, they are done disproportionately by women and girls. Unpaid work like this is hampering women’s access to opportunities outside the home, holding individuals back and contributing to the gender gap.

If women’s unpaid care work were compensated at a rate roughly equal to minimum wage, this would add about $10 trillion to global economic output (around 13% of global GDP).1 Globally, women spend between two and 10 times longer than men on household chores like laundry, cleaning and cooking, and caring for children and family members.

So how can we help change this gender norm? We don’t pretend complex issues like this can be solved by one business, with one initiative. But making people think about the status quo can be a first step to challenging it, if it isn’t fair. And by putting our brands at the centre of the change we want to create, we’ll keep building the consumer trust we need to grow our business.

Unfair & unpaid

Katja Freiwald, Director of Global Partnerships and Advocacy for Women’s Empowerment and Livelihoods

Katja Freiwald, our Director of Global Partnerships and Advocacy for Women’s Empowerment and Livelihoods, explains the potential she sees in rebalancing unpaid work.

“Personally, the topic of unpaid care work is very present for me, having returned from maternity leave and trying to balance work and family life. Being a mother has made me realise that the inequitable distribution of unpaid care and domestic work is probably linked to the most deeply ingrained social norms in societies across the world.

There’s enough evidence that addressing this issue will play a big part in unlocking true economic empowerment for women. For Unilever, unpaid care work is a priority area given that it directly impacts women every day in our workplace, supply chain and distribution network, as well as our consumers.

Unilever is taking its responsibility towards its own employees seriously, for example through progressive diversity and inclusion policies.

What I’m even more excited about is that we’re amplifying the impact through the power of our brands to address this issue. Particularly, our Home Care brands like Surf and Sunlight have made this central to their brand purpose.”

Our laundry brand Surf is one example of a brand that has started to address the issue of unpaid domestic work.


Happy women walking

Surf: tackling the norms around unpaid domestic work

In 2017, our Surf brand began a unique three-year partnership with Oxfam. It aims to expand choices for women and girls by recognising, reducing and redistributing the amount of time they spend on unpaid care work.

Starting in the Philippines and Zimbabwe, the WE-Care programme seeks to change the social norms that allocate most of a household’s chores to women. Communications are key to getting the message across: the programme involves using different channels as well as face-to-face household visits by local agents.

At the same time, the programme aims to provide better access to water and laundry infrastructure, with new or improved communal laundries, household laundry facilities and water systems or centres.

The programme sets out to reach 70,000 people directly. And millions more through our communications, which will challenge people to recognise the impact unpaid care work has on women and girls’ lives, and change norms to achieve more equal responsibility for unpaid care work.

Unstereotyping our value chain

We’re embedding the idea of unstereotyping throughout our business and value chain. Given the severity of the barriers to progress these norms present, they have to be tackled at multiple levels and in a variety of ways. Elsewhere within Opportunities for women, we describe our work on:

1The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth, McKinsey Global Institute

Main image by Hanna Chriqui, Bangkok, Thailand

Back to top


We're always looking to connect with those who share an interest in a sustainable future.


Get in touch with Unilever PLC and specialist teams in our headquarters, or find contacts around the world.

Contact us