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Outdated social norms and stereotypes can prevent women from achieving their full potential.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.
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What's more, these outdated norms are holding back the global economic growth and social progress that will come from women's empowerment and gender equality - the growth and progress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 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 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.
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.