Unilever: How We Achieved Gender Balance in Management and Inclusion
Building a gender-balanced business doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a journey only made possible through continued, sustained focus across an organisation, which leads to a big shift.
So we are thrilled and humbled to have received the prestigious Catalyst Award for a second time, which recognises our collective work in accelerating progress for women in our organisation and the wider industry.
We started our journey in 2010, when women made up only 38% of management across Unilever’s global business and achieving gender balance by the end of 2020 seemed like a daunting prospect. Today, I am excited to say we have reached this milestone ahead of target!
While we still have lots of work to do, I’d love to take this moment to share some of the steps we have taken to create a more gender-balanced business at Unilever.
Leadership from the top
I am often asked by peers from other businesses how they can drive gender balance further up the agenda when it isn’t always prioritised by senior leaders. The answer is simple: You can’t.
This topic requires true commitment from the top – both in words and in action. Our Global Diversity Board is Chaired by Alan Jope our CEO, who has called out diversity and inclusion across our business as one of his top three strategic focus areas, and across the world our senior leaders drive the agenda for change, demonstrating their personal passion holding themselves and others accountable.
Addressing unconscious bias
Sometimes this means having some tough conversations.
Two years ago, we began a partnership with Professor Iris Bohnet of Harvard University, which put Unilever at the cutting edge of a results-driven, scientific approach to tackling unconscious bias.
With Professor Bohnet’s guidance, we introduced a tool called the Gender Appointment Ratio which looks at the recruitment track records of our senior leaders over a five-year period. The ratio is calculated by dividing the total number of women appointed by the total number of men appointed.
Presenting leaders with the big picture of their recruitment decisions wasn’t about creating a culture of blame, but rather improving awareness and creating conversations to drive change.
Creating an inclusive culture
However, strong leadership isn’t enough; you need an environment in which everyone can be a changemaker. One of our greatest unlocks has been creating a culture in which our employees feel able to balance their careers and bring their full and authentic selves to work.
Wherever possible, we are committed to promoting agile and flexible working, giving people more control over how, when and where they work. This includes working part-time, having alternative start and finish times, and work from home options – giving our staff the flexibility to balance everyday life commitments with their work.
In 2018, we implemented the Global Maternal Wellbeing standard which guarantees employees 16 weeks’ paid maternity leave, wherever they’re based in the world, which in many places went far beyond local regulatory requirements.
Importantly, in the same year, we launched our Global Paternity Leave standard which enables new fathers to take three weeks’ paid paternity leave – this is also available to same-sex couples and those who adopt a child – reflecting our belief that gender balance isn’t just about focusing on women, but creating an inclusive environment in which everyone can thrive and balance their personal and professional responsibilities.
This inclusive culture has been vital in allowing us to respond swiftly and transition smoothly to a global work from home policy for all our office-based employees in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
We treat our people working from home as fully empowered to manage their personal and professional lives as they best see fit, including flexible start and finish times and scheduling meetings around family duties. We’re seeing great creative tools come through from each of our markets, there’s a true sense of adapting as a community and bottom-up learning. For example, some of our colleagues in Germany are piloting virtual childcare with one parent reading to a small group of children via video while the other parents focus on work. We have social activities such as virtual karaoke to support those living alone, and we have introduced health and wellbeing initiatives such as virtual yoga and dance classes.
We know all employees are doing the best they can in this difficult time – we recognise that you can’t have empowerment without trust, and we trust our people’s judgement.
Facing down the tricky hot spots
Some of the trickiest roadblocks are those that are long-ingrained, but, if overcome, have the greatest ability to drive meaningful change.
We identified the specific functions and geographies in our business, such as Supply Chain, IT and Finance, where there is an industry-wide underrepresentation of women in management; rather than accepting this as beyond our sphere of influence we focused on the things we could change.
In Supply Chain, we started to increase representation of women by accelerating the development of existing female leaders and working with recruitment specialists to build proactive talent pipelines. We also established a Supply Chain female mentoring programme. While in Finance, we implemented a robust D&I and Talent management framework which ensured balanced internal and external slates in leadership hiring, regular Finance Leadership involvement through sponsorships and minimising unconscious bias in key appointments through panel interviews.
We aren’t there yet, but these are some of the areas in which we’ve made the biggest shifts. A true testament to the commitment of these parts of our business to driving change.
Unstereotyping our business & brands
Last but not least – a purposeful business has to live its values both internally and externally.
In 2016, we launched a global commitment to eradicate stereotypes from our advertising, recognising they’re often outdated, unhelpful and, in some cases, harmful. For some of our brands, this meant retiring long-established and recognisable assets; it was a sacrifice we made to take a step in the right direction. We took the Unstereotype initiative one step further in 2017 when we joined forces with UN Women and industry leaders to launch the Unstereotype Alliance – a global alliance of companies tackling stereotypes across the advertising industry, in several markets.
We then turned this lens inward to our business, commissioning a study to understand how stereotypes affected 8,000 of our employees. The results made for tough reading – 60% of women and 49% of men said they felt stereotypes had held them back at work. We knew this wasn’t good enough and took swift action, and Unstereotype The Workplace is now a global theme across the business to address and shatter limiting norms.
We Know We Still Have Work To do
We are delighted to have reached the milestone of gender balance in managerial roles worldwide. We want our business to grow, and we firmly believe that empowering women and unlocking their potential is part of how we’ll achieve sustainable, equitable growth.
We are now taking a deeper focus to our senior management levels to understand how we can unlock further potential there. To start, we are rolling out specific senior-level training programmes to help accelerate the careers of women at Unilever.
We are also rolling out a parental coaching programme to help new parents with the transition back to work, traditionally a time where employees may leave the business. We want to support this community as much as possible, keeping them in the business and providing them with the training opportunities to progress their careers into senior management roles.
We are always learning, and I feel excited for our next steps on this journey.
EVP Global Marketing and Global Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Unilever