Why empowering women is essential for economies

It’s a year since Unilever backed the launch of the UN’s HeForShe Impact campaign – an initiative to secure the commitment of 1 billion men to support gender quality and women’s empowerment.

Now, as the new HeForShe Parity Report (PDF | 9MB) outlines the progress made by Unilever and other Impact Champions, Alan Jope, Unilever’s President of Personal Care, shares his thoughts on why empowering women is crucial for business, the economy and society to thrive.

As Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General has said, there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, a ‘full potential’ scenario in which women played an identical role to that of men in the labour economy, would add up to $28 trillion dollars to the global annual GDP – the same as the combined GDP of the world’s two largest economies, US and China. Empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do. It is essential to drive sustainable business growth.

But many women still face discrimination and disadvantages that prevent their active participation in the economy. By supporting them, we will transform lives, families and communities.

A year ago, we made a commitment to empower 5 million women by 2020 across our own operations, in our extended supply chain and in the communities where we operate. We’ve already made some encouraging progress.

A balanced business for better decisions

At current trends it will be 2096 before women have the same economic opportunities as men. This is far too slow. Unilever recognises that gender-balanced teams make better business decisions; and the more balanced our business is, the better our understanding of our consumers’ needs, wants and concerns will be. In the Personal Care Leadership Team we have equal numbers of women and men, 14 different nationalities and all major religions represented; and this diversity adds to the richness of our discussions and informs our decision-making.

That’s why we’ve taken steps to support women in the workplace. We’ve launched enhanced maternity and paternity programmes to support new parents returning to work, and flexible working to help women achieve a work/life balance that suits their needs.

In 2010, 38.2% of managers at Unilever were female. By 2015, that figure stood at 44.7% and the number of women at executive level grew from 8.7% in 2010 to 22.2% in 2015. We’re also starting 2016 with three women on the Unilever Executive – the highest number ever.

We know there’s more to do before we reach an equal gender balance at management level, but that’s our aim. With 50% men and 50% women leading our business, we know we can better reflect our predominantly female consumer profile, and build the skills and leadership styles we need to succeed in the 21st century.

Making women feel safe, supported and inspired

Of course our business isn’t just office-based. So we’re supporting women at every step of our value chain. This includes the smallholder farmers who grow the crops we use in our products, and small-scale retailers who sell our products in hard-to-reach areas around the world.

These women often live in regions where their voices may not be heard or their rights may not be seen as equal to men. In our own operations, we’re making sure that women working in our fields, factories and communities are free from violence and discrimination by increasing awareness, education and preventive actions to keep women safe. This is their fundamental right.

We’re also providing women with greater access to training, and encouraging them to put their new skills into practice with opportunities for employment, entrepreneurship and sustainable sources of income. By the end of 2014, around 168,000 female smallholder farmers and 70,000 women micro-entrepreneurs had completed qualifications made possible by Unilever – and our partnerships to deliver this support continue to develop.

Empowering girls and women through our brands

Our brands are also playing an enabling role in women’s empowerment They can lessen the workload for women to unlock their time to pursue other interests and activities which have the potential to expand their livelihoods and wellbeing. We’ve seen those brands with a clear purpose in line with our Sustainable Living Plan objectives grow twice as fast as the rest of our business.

Many of these sustainable living brands can reach millions of girls and women around the world, and we’re committed to making the most of that connection to further equality. Dove, for example, is partnering with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts to provide young women with self-esteem education designed to help them overcome appearance-related pressure and realise their ambitions.

Sunsilk has a programme to train and support salon entrepreneurs and beauticians in countries like India, Brazil and Vietnam, while in other countries like Turkey, the brand will be partnering with UN Women to reach local NGOs that provide the tools young women need to join the workforce.

Elsewhere, Sunlight is partnering with Oxfam and TechnoServe to develop Water Centres run by women entrepreneurs in Nigeria, which provide communities in rural villages with a sustainable supply of clean water for domestic tasks. These centres not only give access to safe water but have also enabled women to reclaim their time otherwise lost to water collection.

I see all our efforts so far very much as the beginning. I am convinced that we have a huge opportunity to make a real, positive difference – both for our business and for women in society. And I believe that when we succeed, we will be a catalyst for transformational change in what will be the first century of genuine equality.

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