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

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Outdated social norms and stereotypes can prevent women from achieving their full potential.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.

Challenging harmful gender norms

No limits

Some of the strongest forces behind persistent gender gaps are harmful social norms and stereotypes that limit expectations of what women and men 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What's more, these outdated norms are holding back the global economic growth and social progress that will come from women's empowerment and gender equality - the growth and progress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 High-Level Panel on Women in 2017 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’s 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 visible 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 the diverse, inclusive, and agile business we want to build − 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 Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer.

“We’re eradicating harmful stereotypes from our advertising. As a consumer goods company, we have a broad reach – 2.5 billion people each day use our products, and our brands are on sale in over 190 countries.

So we recognise the responsibility we have when it comes to the portrayal of gender norms around the world. That’s why, back in 2016, our Customer Intelligence team conducted research to understand the changing role and identity of women and men around the world. When we compared our findings to thousands of ads produced by many different industries, we found a huge and shocking disconnect between the way our audiences saw themselves and how they were being represented on-screen.

For example, just 3% of industry advertising featured women in leadership roles. Only 2% showed women as intelligent. And a shocking 0.3% portrayed women as having a sense of humour. It was no surprise that 40 per cent of women were saying, "I do not relate at all to the women I see in adverts.”

This was a galvanising moment for Unilever, and we decided to act. First on our own, launching Unstereotype as a company-wide commitment to banish stereotypes and advance portrayals of people in our advertising. Then in 2017, we joined UN Women to launch the Unstereotype Alliance – bringing the whole industry together to use the power of advertising to help shape perceptions that reflect realistic and unstereotypical portrayals of women and men.

The economic case is only getting stronger. We’ve tested over 1,500 ads, covering 370 Unilever brands and 54 markets around the world. The data proves that ads with more progressive role depictions show uplifts on short- and long-term key metrics. The figures are impressive: we’re seeing 37% more branded impact, and a 28% uplift in purchase intent. And alongside that, there’s a 35% increase in enjoyment of ads, a 30% increase in credibility, and a 17% increase in relevance.”

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 – and some of our biggest brands are leading the way.

We are constantly innovating to find new ways to accelerate Unstereotype across our workforce and in our advertising. Becoming conscious of our blind spots and the biases that are holding us back is fundamental.

Aline Santos, Executive Vice President of Global Marketing and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer

To guide our brand and agency teams, we’ve redesigned internal systems and developed a suite of tools, guidelines and measurement criteria that help us to unstereotype from strategy through to creative execution. Our teams also take part in training and workshops to challenge their unconscious biases.


Three people socializing

Rethinking how we think

In 2019, we worked with academics at University College London on an experiment which challenged our marketers to rethink the way their campaigns portray the people we serve.

The project explored whether DNA analysis, aimed at giving participants a greater insight into their origins, coupled with a workshop on behavioural change, could help to broaden the way people see themselves and the world around them.

The experiment showed a statistically significant 35% reduction in stereotypical thinking and a significant change in original thinking among those who took part.

Smashing stereotypes in every market

Since we announced our pledge to unstereotype our advertising in 2016, we’ve been working on doing just that in every one of our markets. For instance, to encourage girls to dream big and do more, in 2019, our Sunsilk haircare brand launched Rethink Pink, a bold campaign featuring real women who have broken the mould of what women ‘should do’ and achieved incredible things.

The campaign used pink as a marker of femininity and set out to reframe what pink means. Sunsilk’s white paper also highlighted the importance of Opening up Possibilities for Girls (PDF | 4MB) during the 2019 UN Global Assembly. Our Sunlight brand's Wanita Bekarya (Women's empowerment) programme aims to inspire and train women in Indonesia by supporting entrepreneurial skills. Partnering with local NGO Amartha, the programme is on track to reach more than 80,000 women by the end of 2020.

From Brooke Bond tea to Cif cleaning products, and from Lux soap to Sunlight detergent, many more of our brands have found new, unstereotyped ways to talk about their products – ways that are reaching consumers and driving growth.

Moving an industry – the Unstereotype Alliance

Of course, any single business can only reach so far in tackling stereotypes that fail the industry and society. To make an impact at greater scale, we need everyone to embrace it.

In 2017, UN Women convened 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.

The Unstereotype Alliance

The Unstereotype Alliance is a thought and action platform that uses advertising as a force for good to drive positive change. It seeks to eradicate harmful gender-based stereotypes.

The alliance is focused on empowering women in all their diversity (race, class, age, ability, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, language, education, etc) and addressing harmful masculinities to help create a gender equal world.


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. By 2019, 85 companies had signed up to be part of the Unstereotype Alliance, with local chapters launched in Brazil, Turkey and South Africa.

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

How unpaid work holds women back

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Uplift in 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).2 Globally, women spend between two and ten 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.

Shifting attitudes on unpaid work

We believe our brands can play a part in helping to recognise, reduce and redistribute the amount of time spent by women and girls on household chores. Dove Men+Care for example is championing the provision and uptake of paternity leave by celebrating and appreciating men in their role as involved caregivers. Another example is WE-Care − a three-year partnership between Surf and Oxfam which from 2016 to 2019 worked to enable women to have more choice over how they spend their time, and greater opportunity to claim their rights and engage in social, personal, economic and political activity.

Communications are key to getting the message across: the programme used different channels as well as face-to-face household visits by local agents. In February 2019, the new #iLabaYu (#ILoveYou) communications campaign was launched in the Philippines. The campaign encourages men to share household chores, particularly laundry, and to contribute to raising a future generation of Filipinos who live out the true meaning of respect and equality beginning at home. Advocacy is also essential − and the programme actively engaged global and local decision-makers with the aim of influencing policy and investment.

The WE-Care final evaluation found...

  • Women involved in WE-Care reported having more time to spend on activities of their choice, including paid work.
  • Women in areas where water or laundry points were built or repaired in the Philippines spent twice as much time on paid work and farming activities.
dripping tap

78,000 people reached directly through WE-Care since 2016

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

By the end of 2019, our final evaluation found that almost 78,000 people, mostly women and girls, had benefited directly (and more than 300,000 people indirectly) from the project. Many benefited from the construction and repair of water points, or the distribution of time and labour-saving equipment such as water containers, pushcarts or fuel-efficient stoves.

People also benefited from social norms interventions, for example, community awareness activities and the training of care champions. The project engaged 1,365 decision makers and over 6,400 development professionals through meetings, training, publications and participation in events. And it reached 34 million people through its online, TV and radio campaigns, exceeding our target by 283%.


Happy women walking

WE-Care: changing minds to change outcomes

Getting people to recognise the value of unpaid care work is a key step to making it fairer. And from UN Headquarters to local councils, our WE-Care reached decision-makers − and helped encourage change.

In the Philippines, for example, WE-Care played a direct part in local government passing ordinances that recognise their responsibility for addressing unpaid care work. Local government bodies are committing to increase investment in care-related infrastructure, services, and research and knowledge generation.

This is real change on the ground − but advocacy doesn't stop there. At the Women Deliver conference in 2019, with Oxfam we launched our business briefing to help business understand the role it can play in tackling unpaid care (PDF | 11MB). And as well as making its case at the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women at the UN Headquarters in New York, WE-Care is engaged with major global influencers including the World Economic Forum and the OECD.

Overall, we believe this partnership reflects the true spirit of our Opportunities for Women agenda - and makes a measurable to contribution to SDG 5.4.1 on the recognition and value of unpaid care and domestic work.

This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goal

  • Gender Equality)

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:

Main image by Hanna Chriqui, Bangkok, Thailand


2The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth, McKinsey Global Institute