“I want to change the way the world looks at itself”—Executive Director

Opening remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the Unstereotype Alliance Global Member Summit in New York on 28 March 2019


[As delivered]

This is our second Unstereotype Alliance Annual Global Member Summit. We are two years old and going strong. It is wonderful to see that, as we meet together for our second year, we have so much to talk about. Congratulations on the energy that you have created.

Today is a chance to take stock of how far we have travelled and to share the experiences that will help us meet our goal of eliminating harmful gender-based stereotypes in advertising and the media.

We are here because we know that stereotypes are everywhere—they are in the movies that we watch, they are in the foods we eat, they are in the products we wear. But more than anything else, we are here because we believe that we can do something to bring about change.

We believe in the power of being global, harnessing the global footprint of the United Nations and the footprint of your organizations and companies. Together we are unstoppable.

We see that, every day, stereotypes justify bad behaviour that we want to change. We know that these stereotypes can trigger unconscious bias that results in real discrimination lived with by women and girls for the rest of their lives and intergenerationally.

We see that every day in our work as UN Women, where despite the progress that we feel we are making – the changing of laws, or the building of institutions that are gender-responsive—stereotypes just keep taking us backwards or slowing us down.

We saw that especially when we did the evaluation, in 2015, of the impact of 20 years of implementing the Beijing Platform for Action. When we reviewed what was happening across the world, we found that countries had done all kinds of things to change the situation. They passed laws, they had initiatives that were targeted at addressing gender inequality, they provided infrastructure, they provided institutions. But there was just something that was stubbornly standing still, whether you came from Iceland, the country with the highest level of compliance with gender equality, or the countries that were regarded as being the worst countries to be born in as a woman. The countries with these extremes had a lot in common—the stereotypes and the ways in which women and girls were viewed.

One example is the fact that in many countries where girls are graduating in higher numbers, this does not translate to the place that women occupy in the labour market; when we have more girls graduating with MBA degrees it does not automatically mean we will see more women in the commercial world, leading institutions in the C suite. Clearly there is something that continues to hold girls and women back. The same thing can be said about people of colour or people with disability. No matter how much we see progress, it does not translate into opportunities in the lives of the minorities who are discriminated against. So, changing stereotypes is about making that change. We are in the business of changing the quality of life of the people who cannot speak for themselves and we need to look at our work in that way.

Stereotypes are also directly undermining the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals that we are all so passionate about.

Stereotypes reduce the extent to which women and girls have voice and visibility; the extent to which we can address the intergenerational poverty that comes from repeating cycles of unequal education, pay and opportunity; and the extent to which women are excluded from peacemaking processes in a world that is plagued by conflict and displacement.

Today I will be meeting with Member States who are discussing the deployment of women in peacekeeping and training an increased number of women peacekeepers. These Member States have noted that girls are not attracted to the security forces because the stereotype is that it is an industry for strong men who have an urge to kill. But these are protection services, which we can portray in a different way and make girls feel that they have a contribution to make that can change the look and feel of security forces. I’m sure there could be an advertisement making these important institutions more attractive to women and girls. This is critical, because when women are there as peacekeepers, the violence against women in communities is reduced. When women are there, the peacekeeping missions in different countries are embraced by the communities because the women peacekeepers go out of their way to start literacy classes and to look at maternal health issues. They stay inside the houses of the communities that they are guarding and get a feel for the soul of those communities. By the time the women peacekeepers leave, the girls in that community feel stronger because they have seen people who are role models. And as happened in Liberia, many more girls now want to be in law enforcement, because they see that this is a cool job where people really do things that change the quality of life. These are the messages that we have an opportunity to tell.

We also know that customers do not want us to spread stereotypes. A study that some of you were part of told us; consumers want us to be aspirational about the lives of our communities and for ourselves. They want us to make sure that our adverts don’t hurt men or women alike. They want to make sure that we don’t sell products by making anyone feel less than they see themselves to be.

You already have done so much. There have been some teething problems, but nothing that we cannot overcome. We already have seen, through the Gender Equality Measure (GEM) and other similar measurements, the kind of interventions that are possible and that we can bring to the fore. As the Unstereotype Alliance, we can work together in order to make sure that – whether you are already a very strong brand with the capacity to operate at a very high level or you are just entering the industry and you need the most simple way to start—we are all trying to achieve the same thing. We have a lot in common and together we can actually change the world—every part of the world. The most important thing is that everyone should find it easy to be part of this Alliance, and that all of us, when we work together, should be able to speak to all the causes that we are trying to address around the world.

As the United Nations, we want to work with you every step of the way. And as the UN we do not have the luxury to choose. We are fiercely protective about our responsibility to work with everybody and to be inclusive. The more the merrier. And we need to make sure that we find that sweet spot that brings all of us together.

2020 will be a big year for the United Nations—and for you as the Alliance, because now you are in the extended family of the UN—because we will be celebrating 25 years of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. We will be reviewing what has happened to women over that 25 years but also claiming the space and trying to project women in a specific and positive way. I need you to use your tools to make this message heard in the strongest way, consistent with the vision of the Alliance. I want us to use this opportunity of the Beijing +25 celebration to be intergenerational, so that we begin to cut the perpetual cycle of discrimination against women and many other people who do not feel represented by stereotypes. Through you, I want us to find a way of cutting this self-perpetuating cycle and make sure that we use this anniversary to emerge on the other side with messages that we can repeat, that we can share, that show the work of the Alliance, that are saying that ‘we are better than this’ and ‘we are different than this’ and ‘each and every one of us has something to give, so we do not conform to the stereotype that is used to portray us.’

So, I call upon all of you to accelerate action by signing the Unstereotype Alliance pledge and continuing to commit yourselves and your businesses to test your advertising. We fully endorse the GEM, but have also put forward the Unstereotype Metric as a lighter measure. Whichever or whatever people use, everybody has to be measured. No one must fall between the cracks. No one has an excuse not to be inside the tent.

We want you to sign up for the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) and use the Gender Gap Analysis Tool (GAT) for your self-assessment of progress. We want you to share your best practices within the Alliance to help others to achieve our goals and mission. And we want you to spread the word about “unstereotyping”, both within the industry and to consumers, so that the mission of the Alliance is well understood and widely recognized.

We also want you to make people feel that this is theirs. Let us find a way of making the Alliance not something that only the professionals own, but that anyone on the street identifies with, feels good about and can put in their social media and share with their friends, because it speaks to them. Let us use your talent and your creativity to achieve that.

Success for me, in one year from now, will be that wherever I go—and I go to a lot of places – people know us and are talking about us and the work that we do. That people are actually taking our ideas and using them to explain themselves and to find a way of changing the stereotypes in whatever environment they are in. That your companies are actually using the brand in a way that is as visible as possible. That in your own companies, you are coming up with and marketing products that are unmistakably unstereotyping; where people look at it and their jaws drop because of the messages that you are making. I want to change the way the world looks at itself.

So, thank you. I have a lot of faith in your power, your capacity and your passion. And the United Nations could not be happier to form this relationship with you. Thank you.