Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Challenging gender stereotypes might help close the gender gap. Here's how!

Gender stereotypes are deeply ingrained - and they are holding women back

Gender stereotypes are deeply ingrained - and they are holding women back Image: Shutterstock

Paul Polman
Co-Founder and Co-Chair, IMAGINE
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Gender Inequality

  • Goal 5 of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aims at attaining gender equality.
  • Research by Unilever and other authorities suggest that gender stereotypes and harmful social norms are keeping gender gaps persistent.
  • Gender stereotypes are deeply ingrained and hold back women from achieving their true potential.

As if the scandals engulfing the film industry and the political environment weren’t troubling enough, this week the World Economic Forum published its latest Gender Gap Report.

Not only is the news not what we had hoped for – some modest progress perhaps – it shows that we are actually going backwards. Instead of taking a mere 170 years to close the gap at our current rate of ‘progress’, it will now take 217 years.

We all aspire to the aims of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but if we are to achieve the world we want by 2030, it simply must be gender-equal. And it’s not just a matter of focusing on Goal 5, the specific target on gender. Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls must happen across all the SDGs to ensure their success, from poverty to sanitation and climate change. However, many long-held gender stereotypes pose a serious challenge.


I believe it is our moral responsibility as today’s leaders - across all sectors from business, and government to civil society - to accelerate the pace of our actions to further advance the lives of women and girls everywhere, and to reverse the widening gap.

And it is in our own interest to do so.

Investing in women

Equality for women in the labour force would add up to $28 trillion to the global economy by 2025, according to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute. In a global economy calculated to be some $100 trillion and currently forecast to grow only modestly, this is a very significant opportunity.

For Unilever, investing in women is imperative (and a challenge to the prevalent gender stereotypes). The business and social cases for doing so are inextricably linked. Women account for more than 70% of our sales; they control 64% of consumer spending and are the fastest-growing group of consumers in the world today.

We believe we have made significant strides towards gender equality. I am proud that nearly 50% of our managers, almost 40% of our board and more than one-third of our executive team are women and that we are implementing targeted programmes aiming to change the lives of many women in our value chain – enabling them to develop their skills, promoting their safety and expanding their economic opportunities.

But with the plethora of programmes and projects across all sectors - from business to governments to civil society - how can it be that we have gone backwards? What has gone wrong? And why are we slowing down when we should be speeding up?

How gender stereotypes widen gender gaps

Research by Unilever and other leading authorities suggests that some of the strongest forces behind persistent gender gaps are harmful social norms and gender stereotypes that limit expectations of what women can or should do. These outdated norms that discriminate against women are all around us - and they are deeply ingrained.

The UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Women concluded, ‘Changing norms should be at the top of the 2030 Agenda.’ We all have a role to play in challenging these adverse social norms and reshaping gender stereotypes.

The ideal is a world in which every woman and girl can create the kind of life she wishes to lead, unconstrained by harmful norms and gender stereotypes. And a world too, in which men are also free from the confines of adverse social norms and stereotypes of manhood and masculinity, and in which economies are growing and creating opportunities for men and women alike.

As a consumer goods company serving billions of consumers every day, Unilever understands the drivers and motivations that create the norms that lie behind people's behaviour. We are accelerating progress to address gender stereotypes and harmful behaviour by ‘unstereotyping’ our gender value chain, with the aim of improving the lives of millions of women and girls.

For example, together with UN Women and over 20 other industry leaders, Unilever has convened the Unstereotype Alliance to tackle the widespread prevalence of gender role stereotypes that are often perpetuated through advertising at a systemic level, taking action through some of its brands - such as Dove addressing self-confidence issues, and Surf around unpaid care work.

The positive effects of these efforts against stereotyping gender roles ripple out beyond those directly affected by wider society. When women are provided with training and entrepreneurial opportunities in distribution networks, they become role models in their communities, showing it is possible to challenge limiting norms and gender stereotypes and to succeed.

Obviously, no one company or industry - or country, for that matter - can do it alone. The sheer breadth of the gap is too great. It requires collaboration and partnerships between businesses, governments and civil society of an altogether different magnitude and scope than we have managed in the past.

The Unstereotype Alliance is a great example of how strong partnerships can be built to create systematic change across an entire industry.

Concerted, consistent and continuous action is required to address gender stereotypes. We are ‘leaning in’ and I would urge other leaders to do the same by applying a gender lens – focused in particular on social norms – to all their programmes, irrespective of which SDG they might address, even though the benefits might not necessarily be seen in the short-term. Because those benefits are essential to bringing about the transformation required for a gender-equal world.

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Related topics:
Equity, Diversity and InclusionSustainable DevelopmentEducation and Skills
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