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A quote from a woman in Brazil who participated in Unilever's survey.

Social responsibility

One phenomenon, seen all around you, that’s holding women back in their careers and personal lives

By Zainab Salbi on March 16, 2017

I must admit that every time I see an overtly sexual ad in a taxi ride in New York City or in Times Square billboards I am disturbed. The emphasis on blatant sexual posture and body parts of mostly young models may help sell products, many advertisers would argue. But I can’t see how it does not impact the socialization of women and behavior toward women in the public spaces when what is promoted of women’s images is predominantly their body parts.  

I am equally disturbed when I see advertisements of the “perfect” housewife on Middle Eastern TV with the pristine headscarf as she cleans her home with the perfect smile. Though not sexualized, the image equally limits the role of women and I would argue equally impacts the socialization of women in the region. 

In a recent survey conducted by Unilever, “more than half of those surveyed said that gender stereotypes personally impact their career or lives, or both,” according to Keith Weed, Unilever CMO. 

In particular, 60 percent of women respondents and 49 percent of men, of the 9,000 people surveyed across eight countries, believe that gender stereotypes and traditional beliefs and norms do hold women back. Respondents cited unequal division of housework and childcare as stifling progress and acting as barrier to women achieving equality in the work place.  

In addition, an overwhelming 77 percent of men and also the majority of women (55 percent) believe that a man is the best choice to lead a high-stakes project. When the discussion addressed behavior in the work place, 67 percent of women said they refrained from speaking up against inappropriate behavior and discrimination against women in the workplace because they felt pressure to “get over it,” the survey found. And it seems that both men (55 percent) and women (64 percent) believe that men who witness inappropriate behavior by other men int he workplace neither challenge them nor try to stop them. 

The survey provides fresh data but not new facts. Its findings are consistent with many studies, articles, books, and speeches by feminist activists and women’s organizations going back decades. And though we thought the world has made many changes to enhance the participation of women in the public sphere, the data show that we are back to the same essential story that relates to women, stereotypes and their roles in society. So where do we go from there?  

Mr. Weed argues that “identifying and understanding these stereotypes and the need to address them makes this personal — as opposed to talking about concepts such as the glass ceiling, which sounds like it’s somebody else’s job to solve it. People have been talking about gender equality for decades, but the gender gap is still widening. What we need is to unlock action, and this research will hopefully do exactly that. It highlights the breadth of stereotypes that are held by men and women which hold back progress.” For Mr. Weed and his colleagues at Unilever, “This is not just a moral case but also a business case; our research indicates that progressive portrayals in advertising are 12 percent more effective.”

Unilever prides itself on women’s representation in its company  — from 50 percent of its Board of Directors being women, to 45 percent of its management teams that are led by women — something that is not as common with other companies that are equally tailoring to women as their primary clients worldwide. Still this survey has reawakened the need to go deeper in a company with such a wide economic footprint in the world, a footprint that inevitably comes with a social role and a major responsibility. Nearly three out of four respondents believe the world would be a better place if today’s children were not exposed to gender stereotypes in media and marketing, the survey showed.  

The path to stopping violence against women in our streets and in our homes, sexual harassment in the workplace, and gaining better representation of women in the work and political sectors is no longer limited to activists and NGOs. Companies will need to join the ride fully and incorporate a gender equality agenda not only in its internal structures but in their outward dealings with the public, including their approach to creation of advertisements. The world is too interconnected to separate the sale of products from social responsibility toward all members of society. It is no longer enough for companies to have its token funds for social responsibility or occasional donations to charities. Want to make a difference in this world? I say join Unilever and ask the hard questions: How can we be more responsible toward a safer and a more respectable world for women?

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit