According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, gender equality will not be achieved for another 170 years. Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever since 2019, is working to bring that date forward.

Alan Jope

Why, you might ask, is a man telling us about what we should do about gender inequality? Well, as CEO of Unilever, Alan Jope (BCom 1985) heads up one of the world's largest and most geographically diverse consumer goods businesses. Each day, across 190 countries, two and a half billion consumers use Unilever products. Alan is someone who can influence change.

And one of the differences he wants to see—along with a range of environmental and wider diversity issues—is gender equality.

Appointed as CEO of Unilever in January 2019, Alan has been with the company since 1985. He joined the company's graduate trainee programme straight out of his time at the University of Edinburgh and has worked his way up through the company over the last 35 years with roles across the globe.

For Alan, the business benefits of gender equality are obvious:

"To be honest, we don't spend an awful lot of time worrying about the business case because it's self-evident. At its simplest, it means we're able to tap into the rich talents of all prospective members of the Unilever team.

"Also, our data shows that between 70 and 80% of everyday purchases are made by women. There are multiple macroeconomic studies that show there's up to $27 billion of growth available in the economy if we create opportunities for women."

The extraordinary scale of companies like Unilever means that through a concerted effort by those at the top—such as Alan—societal change can come about.

"It's the job of business", he says with conviction, "to shape society's norms.

"I'll give you an example. We look at ourselves in the mirror and say: 'Are we doing a good enough job in getting women adequately represented at Unilever?' Well, we've now reached a point where our non-executive board is 50/50 men and women, and the same can be said for our managers.

"But then we look at our extended value chain—are we creating opportunities for women in our supplier community and in our routes to market? Unilever is actively engaged in this area by, for example, creating a community of female micro-entrepreneurs in rural villages in India, empowered and equipped to become distributors of Unilever products to gain financial independence."

By changing norms and refusing to propagate stereotypes, business can shape society.

And then there's the vast power of the company's advertising budget. The work by Unilever brands such as Dove to change what Alan calls "inappropriate stereotypes of beauty" has been trailblazing, but they're going further.

"We've actually created a coalition of most of the big advertisers in the world, working with UN Women, called Unstereotype," he explains. "So, in advertising, when someone is being cast washing the dishes, why should that not be a man?

"The representation of women in leadership roles in advertising was pitiful—we're addressing that. And, the representation of people delivering humour in advertising was 0.3% women—we're addressing that too. So, by changing norms and refusing to propagate stereotypes, business can shape society. And I don't think we should sit back and wait for government action. The private sector is usually in the leading position on these types of matters."

So what can companies do to make sure they're doing all they can to create a gender balance? Alan has a three-point plan:

Firstly, you've got to tell people that you're tackling it—explicitly acknowledge disparity both inside and outside of the company.

Secondly, you have to draw your line in the sand and understand what your current gender ratio is.

Thirdly—and Alan recognises how some may find this controversial—is to set clear goals.

He explains: "If a part of the business last year was 40% women, their goal for this year might be to exit at 41.5% women. And you achieve that by forcing balanced slates. So, for every job, is there at least one man and one woman shortlisted for the job? You force it by insisting that we confront people on their promotion track record.

"There are many tools we can use but at the end of the day we always put the most capable person into the job."

If it's so obvious for leaders like Alan and companies such as Unilever, why does gender inequality still perpetuate? According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, gender equality will not be achieved for another 170 years. That's an awful long time to fix something that is so palpably unjust.

"I suppose the barriers are going to be the flipside of the enablers", Alan predicts. "Does the company, for instance, understand the business case? Is it properly led from the top? Our default mode would probably be to allow our unconscious biases to impact our hiring and appointment decisions such that we hire and appoint in our likeness.

"So, a boys' club at the top will self-perpetuate unless an intervention is made. We've made multiple interventions to try to break that cycle and I believe the only barriers are mindsets and policies. There is no shortage of brilliant women ready and waiting to take up opportunities that companies make available to them."

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