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Unilever's CEO gives a lesson on what being an advocate quantifiably means at work

Lianna Brinded
·Head of Yahoo Finance UK
·7-min read
Alan Jope, CEO, Unilever. Photo: Unilever
Alan Jope, CEO, Unilever. Photo: Unilever

Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever (ULVR.L), has been crowned the number one advocate executive for women at work in 2020.

The 2020 HERoes Advocates list celebrates 50 senior leaders who are advocates for women in business and dedicated to creating a more diverse and inclusive business environment. These executives work within at least three levels of the chief executive at large companies, or are the leaders of smaller organisations.

Jope has been CEO since 2019 and has immediately enacted on making sure Unilever is a “beacon for diversity and inclusion, and a leader in progressive work practices.”

He chairs a Global Diversity Board (GDB) — providing leadership and direction on setting stretching, transparent, and measurable targets — which has already led to the company achieving a 50/50 gender balance among non-executives and the group’s total management population of 14,000.

But he hasn’t stopped there.

He has been key on working with INSEAD on a senior women leadership programme, implementing a suite of progressive policies such as flexible working and 16 weeks maternity globally, regardless of tenure as well as partnering with organisations like Equileap, HeForShe, Unstereotype Alliance, and Harvard to further drive greater gender equity and equality.

That’s not to mention launching major initiatives like Shakti —a programme in India and South America that helps women in rural areas become micro-entrepreneurs, selling Unilever products to local villages. These women are given training in accounting, sales and IT, and equipped with smartphones to help them run their business efficiently.

Allyship is essential to gaining greater equity for women at work and those from marginalised communities.

So what can allies and would-be advocates learn from Jope? Yahoo Finance caught up with him to share what real allyship means to him and what it could look like for others.

Q: What does an ally/advocate mean to you? What does that look like?

A: Being an ally starts with being aware and understanding the unconscious biases that all of us grow up with.

It’s about listening to others to get a better understanding of the barriers and discrimination they face. It means looking around the table to ensure that all voices are represented, and decisions aren’t made for any of those communities, but instead with them. But mostly it’s about using my privilege to take action to create true equity.

Q: Why is it more important than ever that executive allies step up?

A: Empowering women and girls is the single greatest unlock for social and economic development. Unconscious bias, harmful norms and stereotypes hold women back. It is well quoted that McKinsey estimated that achieving gender equality in the labour force by 2025 would increase global GDP by an estimated $28tn (£22tn).

But gender parity is hundreds of years away — HUNDREDS OF YEARS. That’s not OK. We need continued leadership from governments, civil society, citizens, and especially from businesses to bring about a more inclusive world.

Businesses have a responsibility to adopt progressive policies like paid maternity and paternity leave, ensure safe workplaces for women, challenge harmful stereotypes, create equal opportunities, and implement equal pay. On top of that, we have a wonderful opportunity to create inclusive business models in our extended value chains.

To accelerate the creation of more allies, all of Unilever’s top 500 leaders will go through our inclusive leaders training programme by the end of 2020.

Alan Jope, CEO Unilever. Photo: Unilever
Alan Jope, CEO Unilever. Photo: Unilever

Q: What have been some of your most proud moments in helping women at work?

A: An approach we take at Unilever is to first look at getting our own house in order – by creating a culture of inclusion, tackling bias and building a gender-balanced workforce. So, achieving gender balance across our 14,000 managers a year earlier than our target was a proud moment for me.

But championing the gender agenda goes beyond the four walls of our office. After getting our own house in order, the second step is to focus on our extended value chain, supporting women through initiatives like Shakti, a programme for micro entrepreneurs.

And thirdly, we use our scale and reach to drive wider social change through our brands, with programmes like the Dove Self-Esteem Project, which has reached over 60 million young people with self-esteem workshops.

It’s an honour to be leading a company with a team so passionate about making a real difference, both within our business and beyond. Not only about creating equal opportunities for women, but also for other under-represented groups like people with disabilities, LGBTQI+, and addressing racial equity.

Q: How do you approach intersectionality — it's been clear that women of colour have it infinitely harder at work — what steps do you take to address that?

A: We do believe in looking through an intersectional lens to dismantle discrimination based on race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and so on.

The approach we take is to listen. Listen to lived experiences. Listen with awareness of what our own biases are and how these create barriers or micro-aggressions. Never stop listening. We can then take the right steps – whether that be through training, targets, or policies. It’s our responsibility to understand and eliminate discriminatory practices in our company and in those that partner with us. We do:

  • Collect data to understand how any gender pay gap presents itself at Unilever, and our goal is to ensure equitable pay.

  • Continue our focus on gender balance across the whole organisation. While we achieved our global management target a year in advance, we are still intervening in functions, countries and regions where gender balance is a continuing gap.

  • Will deploy anti-racism training to all employees to increase understanding, literacy and empathy of racial and ethnic diversity. We’ve learned that well-meaning people need the tools and competencies to be change agents.

Q: Even though you are an incredible advocate, what would you say has been the bigger learning point over the last few weeks?

A: This year has been a slap in the face to remind us how far society still has to go to really address gender and racial inequality – and how much we really have to do to challenge harmful norms and stereotypes.

In particular, the racial justice protests in the US and around the world have put the spotlight on what else we can do to create a more inclusive workplace, more inclusive brands, and a more inclusive society.

We are well aware that our work is not done in challenging adverse norms like caring responsibilities that have often and unfairly landed disproportionately on the shoulders of women.

Q: As a leader, how do you see change manifests itself in the workplace?

A: Usually, I see a spark somewhere that ignites a fire, that causes us to wake up and make a bold commitment. We see more and more leaders willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers – and that our job is about asking more questions, identifying the problems and engaging a broader spectrum of people in crafting solutions against big ambitions.

Q: How do you make sure that all your reports are helping drive that change in the company and making sure the company is as inclusive as possible?

A: We’re putting in place capabilities in our markets to collect data disaggregated by race, class, gender, sexuality and ability.

Measurement is controversial and can be difficult. But it does create accountability. I won’t be able to hide from my gender appointment track record, but we need the data. To be as inclusive as possible, we need both a data strategy as well as a culture strategy. Hard and soft working together.