Why we’re unstereotyping to unleash women’s potential

Katja Freiwald, Unilever Director of Global Partnerships and Advocacy for Women’s Empowerment and Livelihoods, on the harmful stereotypes and social norms preventing women from realising their ambitions, and the changes Unilever is making to accelerate positive change.

Katja Freiwald, Unilever Director of Global Partnerships

Katja Freiwald

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

Katja uses her marketing expertise to build partnerships supporting the women’s agenda and enhancing livelihoods that deliver sustainable development for business and communities.

We will work together with others to challenge outdated, discriminatory social norms and stereotypes that impede opportunities for women across our value chain and society

Katja Freiwald
Women with Surf in India Unilever engineer

To address the gender inequality that holds women back from fulfilling their potential, we must address several multi-faceted constraints in parallel.

That's why, as part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, we have established a commitment called Opportunities for Women. It’s shorthand to encompass the different dimensions of gender equality and empowerment, including access to rights, skills and resources, and jobs and livelihoods.

We are committed to empowering 5 million women by 2020, across our entire value chain – in our workplace, supply chains, the communities we serve, and through the power of our brands. However, considering we are one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, serving billions of consumers, we understand the drivers and motivations that create norms. We believe our impact can be greater and more transformational by helping to challenge limiting social norms and gender stereotypes in society at large.

Stereotypes that set back social progress

These outdated norms and gender stereotypes are impeding the ability to achieve sustained impact at scale. These same forces are affecting women more broadly, holding back global economic growth and social progress that will come from increased gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment identified ‘Addressing adverse norms’ as one of the key systemic constraints contributing to persistent gaps in women´s economic participation. We will take this seriously to deliver our vision of a world in which every woman can create the kind of life she wishes to lead, unconstrained by harmful norms and stereotypes.

We will work together with others to challenge outdated, discriminatory social norms and stereotypes that impede opportunities for women across our value chain and society. We are calling this ‘unstereotyping’ our value chain.

Addressing deeply-entrenched, outdated gender norms and stereotypes requires a concerted effort from business, public sector, civil society leaders and every individual. We are already working with many partners and organisations, such as UN Women, Oxfam, Vital Voices, our suppliers and many others for the benefit of women everywhere.

Unilever will continue these efforts and take a leadership role to support driving the transformational change required by engaging in different levels of partnerships ranging from implementing programmes benefitting female smallholders and partnering to train future women entrepreneurs, to collaborating in bigger multi-stakeholder platforms to drive systemic change.

Walking the talk

We’re also accelerating progressive policies in our own company. We are determined to take a leadership role to mobilise collective action and drive change to challenge harmful social norms and gender stereotypes.

As part of this, we committed to #Unstereotype our advertising in 2016. We’ve since conducted some further research uncovering the role of stereotypes and social norms as barriers to gender equality in the workplace. More than half of respondents reported that “stereotypes personally impact their career and/or life” (60% of women and 49% of men).

We found an ‘unstereotyped mindset’ that is conscious of the role of stereotypes and social norms is one of the most important factors in unlocking gender equality in the workplace. For us, a first step will be to apply these learnings to gender equality initiatives within Unilever. This will help us to drive tangible change in our own workforce, but will also enable us to become a credible catalyst to mobilise others.

And progress is already underway. Within Unilever, we’ve launched initiatives to reduce unconscious bias, which is often a barrier for women to progress towards leadership positions.

In our extended value chain, we are working with suppliers and partners such as UN Women to progress equal rights for men and women in farmer communities.

Through thought-provoking marketing our brands such as Dove, Surf and Axe are addressing different norms and stereotypes impeding girls, women but also men. Many of our brands have changed their advertising and communication.

Our ‘Opportunities for Women’ report

On Wednesday 15 March, at the Commission on the Status of Women, we will be publishing our first report Opportunities for Women – Challenging harmful social norms and gender stereotypes to unlock women´s potential which outlines our progress to date and we hope will inspire others.

By nature, norms and stereotypes are deeply entrenched and therefore require sustained and collective action from business, public sector, civil society leaders and every individual. At Unilever, we’re proud to be taking a leadership role to support driving the transformational change required to challenge them.

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