Improving livelihoods & creating opportunities for women

Empowering women is crucial if society and the economy are to grow and thrive and poverty is to be eradicated.

Woman picking onions

As former UN Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Kofi Annan, has said “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women”. Research shows that women reinvest 90% of income into their families (compared to 30-40% among men). Women’s inclusion in the economic cycle has a magnifying positive impact on growth and on the health and progress of their families and communities.

Yet there are still many human rights challenges that are limiting our daily lives – and the inequality of men and women is one of them. At the current rate, it will require another 170 years before the world has full economic gender equality, according the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Report. Numerous barriers are preventing women from actively participating in the economy and realising their full potential, from discrimination in hiring and unequal pay to the risk of harassment and physical violence, underpinned by harmful social norms and gender stereotypes.

This matters to society - the need to empower women and build gender equality has been recognised as Goal 5 in the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

And it matters to Unilever: we believe gender equality is first and foremost a matter of human rights. We also believe that increasing gender equality will be one of the most powerful enablers of economic growth and of human development over the coming decades. Over 70% of the people making the decision to buy our brands are women. Our future growth depends on meeting their needs and aspirations and on supporting an increase in their livelihoods by fully and formally participating in the economy. For us, the advancement of women’s rights and women’s economic inclusion is a priority.

Empowering women

That is why in 2014 we strengthened the Enhancing Livelihoods ambitions of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan by creating a new pillar on ‘Opportunities for Women’ with a focus on their economic empowerment based on rights, skills and opportunities. Our ambition is to empower 5 million women by 2020. Women also play a central role across Unilever’s value chain and this is reflected in other commitments in our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, such as improving hygiene and nutrition and increasing sustainable sourcing. The benefits to human development of empowering women are clear and will help us grow our business.

Putting our strategy into action

We are moving forward with the activation of our comprehensive strategy to achieve a step-change in women’s empowerment across our business and where we have influence, including:

  • Valuing and advancing opportunities for women within Unilever to ensure a gender balanced organisation.
  • Promoting women’s rights to enable their full and active participation in society.
  • Empowering women and women-owned businesses in our value chain.
  • Creating access to training and skills.
  • Innovating products that improve women’s lives.
  • Driving women’s economic empowerment through our brands, including in our advertising
  • Building partnerships and advocacy to drive systemic change.

Our advocacy objectives

Recognising that harmful social norms and gender stereotypes are a drag on equal opportunity and on the broader sustainable development agenda, we intend look at the areas above through the lens of challenging these barriers. Our ambition is to ramp up our efforts to ‘unstereotype’ our workplace and, over time, our extended supply chain and customer development networks.

As part of our advocacy strategy, in March 2017 we published our white paper Opportunities for Women: challenging harmful social norms and gender stereotypes to unlock women’s potential (PDF | 7MB). This sets out our aim to challenge discriminatory norms and outdated stereotypes across our business and in society at large.

Our biggest opportunity to transform women’s lives is supporting projects across our value chain - for instance, by enhancing the livelihoods of women in our agricultural supply chain sector where they participate heavily. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, rural women have less access to productive resources, services and opportunities, such as land, livestock, financial services and education, compared to men. If we address these issues, women will benefit disproportionately, with improvements in production, productivity and living standards.

Partnerships with organisations such as the Clinton Giustra Partnership, BoP Innovation Center, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and Population Services International will help us achieve our ambitions. And to reflect our commitment in our brands, we have launched #Unstereotype, a major global initiative to lead advertising away from stereotypical portrayals of gender.

We are focusing our programmes on increasing skills for women and opening access to markets, while working to ensure that their fundamental rights are respected. This includes the right to safety, to equal treatment and advancement, and to land ownership. We are also creating new business models incorporating blended finance and new digital platforms to expedite our progress. 

More detail on the areas where we are championing change and the many partners we are working with to achieve this can be found in the pages below.

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