From my childhood in India, one particular memory stands out. Aged 14, to the horror of my family, I emerged from my bedroom in jeans. Jeans! A girl wearing jeans - far less one that wanted a full academic education and university degree - would surely never achieve the ultimate culturally acceptable goal of finding a good husband.
Whenever I remember that moment, I am reminded of the power that gender stereotypes can hold over us. Left unchallenged, they can stop us following our dreams. Freed from them, we feel like nothing is beyond our grasp.
I have only to look at my own organization to know that since that "jeans day", the world has made great strides towards achieving gender balance. Even so, the Global Gender Gap Report 2018 calls for us all to ask ourselves some tough questions.
To some extent, there is evidence of progress amongst the 149 countries who were indexed. But progress is slow, painfully slow. There are proportionately fewer women participating in the labour force and political life. It will take 108 years to close the gender gap and 202 years to achieve parity in the workforce.
We need to ask ourselves: are we really making gender equality a priority? And if so, are we committed to doing so in the shortest amount of time possible? I think we could be doing more. We need more urgency, more action and faster results.
As a global HR leader, I’m responsible for helping people maximize their potential, in every sense of the word. But I’m aware of opposing forces. I see people struggling in a world that’s constantly changing, yet I know what they’re capable of achieving, if only we could make positive changes. This is why I believe we need a fresh, re-energized approach to achieving gender parity - one that works in today’s world.
We know that the world of work is changing, so we must change too. The widely accepted view that we need to help people re-skill often obscures the underlying gender issue: that women are lagging behind in the very STEM subjects required to fulfil the roles of tomorrow.
In the US alone, 1.4 million jobs are vulnerable to technological disruption, and 57% of these belong to women. While top emerging roles include artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning specialists, a study conducted in collaboration with LinkedIn found that women currently represent only 22% of workers in these professions.
But here’s the rub: according to the World Economic Forum report on the “Future of Jobs 2018”, with enough targeted re-skilling, 95% of workers who are currently at risk from job loss could find good-quality work that pays them more than their previous job. So rather than resign ourselves to a “jobless apocalypse” in which women are the biggest losers, we can see the Fourth Industrial Revolution as an opportunity to get more women into the roles of the future.
To this end, Unilever has partnered with WomEng, a non-profit organization founded in South Africa. Together, we’re committed to increasing the percentage of women working in engineering. Drawing from a wider pool of talent and moving towards gender balance is better for individuals, better for business and better for society as a whole.
The right infrastructure
To reap the benefits of investing in women’s education, we must also improve the infrastructure that helps them enter and re-enter the workforce. This means re-balancing the responsibilities of homemaking, child care and other unpaid care work, so that men and women can tackle the unequal distribution of household work.
I’m proud to say that Dove Men+Care are tackling this issue, by addressing the restrictive male stereotypes that hold many men back from taking paternity leave. Parent company Unilever is collaborating with global fatherhood initiative MenCare to create a new standard in paternity leave of a minimum of three weeks. We’re driving a cultural shift by encouraging men to take leave and share the time with their families. By building the right infrastructure and creating the right culture, every business must aspire to a 50/50 gender split for those undertaking unpaid work.
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Re-thinking unconscious bias
If the last few years have taught us anything, it's that without the right mindset, gender parity will remain eternally out of reach. It’s our thinking that will shift the dial on closing the gap. That means tackling unconscious bias and reframing normative representations of gender.
Humans can be contrary creatures. Traditional gender equality training programmes can actually activate unconscious bias, rather than stamp it out, research has shown. Here, technology can help. By gamifying our recruitment process, we’re minimizing human bias and creating a more balanced intake of talent. In 2019, we’ll also be partnering with Harvard in using data-driven insight to reduce bias during the promotion process and get more women into senior leadership positions.
Seeing gender through fresh eyes
Beyond their own walls, organizations have a moral and social responsibility to tackle the gendered stereotypes that fuel conscious and unconscious bias. It is heartening to hear that from June 2019, the UK's Advertising Standards Agency will ban promotions that depict gender stereotypes.
A recent campaign by Dutch peanut butter brand Calvé showed the transformative power of gender-balanced messaging. Last summer, they sought to "unstereotype" football by telling the story of Lieke Martens. As a young girl, she struggled to achieve her dreams in a male-dominated sport. In 2017, she was crowned Best FIFA Women’s Player. The campaign successfully surprised its audience, striking right at the heart of pervasive gender stereotypes to challenge thinking and change mindsets.
A sense of purpose
Eight in 10 women and girls feel pressure never to make mistakes or show weakness, our own research has found. This impossible, deeply damaging standard can encourage us to hide our true selves. When we retreat in this way, we compromise our ability to perform at our best professionally. We feel exhausted, overwhelmed and fearful.
On the other hand, when we feel free to be ourselves and find our individual purpose, we’re more creative and productive, and our overall well-being flourishes. I call this finding your "spark". Our spark is what keeps us motivated, productive and passionate, even in the most challenging of circumstances. It also helps us stay connected to the issues that matter most to the outside world, which is why we talk about having a "higher purpose".
I believe that if we combine this sense of personal fulfilment with a broader social conscience, then we’ll be able to act with the urgency we need to close the gender gap faster. History tells us that it won’t be easy. It will take patience, ingenuity and collaboration, across both the public and private sectors. The dial may be moving, but not nearly fast enough. We need to transform how we work, learn and think about gender. Because in a world of change, what is needed most is the ability to change ourselves.