2018 needs to celebrate women in the workplace

Just as suffragettes fought for the right to vote 100 years ago, women today are still having to fight for workplace equality, writes Aline Santos, the executive vice-president of global marketing at Unilever.

2018 needs to celebrate women in the workplace

There’s a lot for women to be angry about at the moment. We look at the revelations in the film industry and in politics, hear stories about experiences in the workplace, and remember times in our own lives when we felt helpless, powerless and had to force a smile. Or we think about pay gaps, inequality, women doing the bulk of domestic work. Still. Yes, it makes me angry. It should make us angry. We can’t let the tide go back out. We need to grasp this moment and make the changes we need to see in the world.

However, today I am not choosing to be angry – I am choosing to celebrate.

One hundred years ago in the UK, women all over the country rallied together to support each other, and to fight for what they believed each was entitled to. They fought for women to have the right to vote, for a fair democracy and an equal society – and won.

So today I want to celebrate their success, and recognise the important foundations they put down for the millions of women who would follow in their footsteps. I find the stories of suffragette movements all over the world a true source of inspiration and motivation. I always rally around my friends and my family, to make sure they fight for what they know is right, and I do the same thing at work, being especially mindful of the importance of this support to my female colleagues.

This year’s centenary is an important time to reflect on the work that has gone before us, which has led us to where we are today.

Port Sunlight, the original home of Unilever, is where we house our archive. I love spending time here among the rich history of the company. Indeed, we had our own connection with the suffragettes. Lord Lever (the "Lever" of Unilever) was a strong supporter of women’s rights both in the workplace and in wider society. He supported women working for Lever Brothers with free travel, a minimum wage and eligibility for the same benefits as the men working for the company. However, as an MP he was also a target – and in 1913, his home was burnt down by Edith Rigby, as part of a campaign to wake up the government to the suffragette cause. Happily, this did not deter him from continuing to support women in parliament and in the workplace. 

‘When I look around at the inspiring women I work with, I am humbled’

The archive is also a great place to find inspiration from Unilever’s campaigns of the past. While attitudes have undoubtedly evolved, it’s amazing to see how progressive some campaigns were. One that stood out for me from the First World War was a Sunlight soap ad for men on the front line to help wash their own clothes – a full 70 years before the Persil "skinhead" became famous for doing his own laundry in the 1980s. 

Sunlight soap is still one of our much-loved brands, with its purpose now to help liberate women’s time, particularly in water-scarce areas. One way it is doing this is by increasing access to water in Nigeria through a partnership with Oxfam and TechnoServe, and helping to equip local women with entrepreneurial skills and more opportunities to generate an income.

We have long championed the importance of brands with purpose, and the tremendous work they do in the communities they operate in. Tresemmé’s partnership with Levo in the UK and US is addressing women’s confidence in the workplace. Together they are working to help young women improve their impact and presence at work, addressing what they call the "confidence cliff" where research shows women’s aspirations and confidence significantly drop away mid-career, which does not happen to men.

When I look to the year ahead, what I think 2018 needs is to bring people together to celebrate women

If this is what brands can do alone, the power of partnerships cannot be ignored. That’s why, in June 2017, the UN Women and industry leaders – including the Association of National Advertisers, AT&T, Alibaba, Cannes Lions, Diageo, Facebook, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Google, IPG, the IPA, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Mattel, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Publicis, Twitter, The Female Quotient, Unilever, the World Federation of Advertisers and WPP – announced the Unstereotype Alliance. Uniting our collective reach and commitment to banishing damaging stereotypes from our brand comms, providing positive role models, new possibilities and inspiration rather than limits, and recognising we are more powerful when we stand together.

When I look to the year ahead, what I think 2018 needs is to bring people together to celebrate women. Celebrate the 100-year vote anniversary as the significant milestone it is. And recognise that while we haven’t reached all our goals yet, we will eventually. Not one of us can do this alone – we need each other.

When I look around at the many inspiring and accomplished women I work with, I am humbled. And I know if you all do the same, you will be too.

I see women around me from every part of the world and all walks of life who could be anything they want to be, and they chose this career. A vibrant, fulfilling career. I’m proud to call them my colleagues. And I’m proud they chose to work in this industry.

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