Around the world, our Research & Development team comprises 59% women, including 51% of our managerial roles. But this puts Unilever very much in the minority.
In STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and maths – women are significantly under-represented. According to data from the World Economic Forum (WEF), just 30% of the world’s researchers are women, and less than a third of female students choose to study maths or engineering in higher education.
“I am very proud of our R&D team and the many examples of our incredible women in science. Although today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, ensuring more women choose careers in STEM is not something that should be talked about on one day alone,” says Unilever’s Chief R&D Officer Richard Slater.
“My ask is for all of us who work in STEM, especially those of us in leadership roles, to consider how we can interest more girls and young women in STEM early on and how we can improve the level of engagement and support throughout their education, internships and careers. It is essential to have diversity in management and leadership positions within STEM, not just as a source of stronger creativity and innovation, but also to ensure there are role models to inspire those setting out on their careers as the next generation of leaders,” he adds.
More role models, fewer stereotypes
Entrenched gender stereotypes and gender bias are often part of the problem. It’s said that we can’t be what we can’t see. And with recent research finding that just 12% of movie characters with STEM jobs are played by women, it’s clear that it’s time to put more role models in the spotlight.
That’s exactly what we’re doing here, to mark the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
Meet Babita, who grew up in remote, rural India and defied stereotypes and sexism to forge a successful international career.
Meet Sueli, whose childhood fantasy was to work in the fragrant Unilever soap factory near her home. Years later she brings new product innovations to market with her impressive experience in chemistry.
Meet Erica, who is passionate about ensuring women have access to accurate information when making their skincare choices – not empty promises but scientifically proven facts.
Scroll through the carousel below to hear from them, and nine other incredible women who work in science across Unilever.
Karina: Shattering stereotypes
“For as long as I can remember I have been curious about finding solutions to life’s problems. I learned not to accept the stereotype and expectations imposed on girls. Questioning the stereotype of what a scientist should look like was my greatest recipe for success.
“I’ve worked as a food scientist for 22 years. One of the things I love about my job is that I get to work with so many brilliant minds, within Unilever and in our broader ecosystem. It is amazing to see the inventiveness and disruption that individuals aligned around the same goal can create.”
Karina Zimerfeld is Vice President of R&D in our Unilever Food Solutions business, based at our Hive Foods Innovation Centre in the Netherlands.
Serena: Following her passion
“The biggest challenge I have faced in my journey in science has been the unconscious bias of some of my women professors. Because I was also very good at literature and languages, they found it weird that I wanted to study pharmaceutical chemistry, so they questioned my choice.
“I decided to follow my passion. And I definitely don’t regret doing so. I have the chance to renew myself every day by learning, by developing new technologies and by solving new problems.”
Serena Pezzia is Site Leader at our R&D facility in Casale, Italy.
Sueli: A dream come true
“I joined Unilever’s R&D team 24 years ago, and grew up in Valinhos, a small city in Brazil, where one of Unilever’s biggest soap factories is located. As a child I used to look through the factory windows as I walked by with my mother, watching people working on the production lines and smelling the wonderful fragrances. I said to my mother that one day I’d like to become a chemist so I could work there too.
“I faced many challenges along the way and took a career break when I had my children. Eventually I was hired by Unilever and my dream came true. Since then I’ve visited our factories all over the world and I’m still as passionate as ever about my work.”
Sueli Cagliari is a Beauty and Personal Care R&D Manager, based in Valinhos, Brazil.
Rosela: The foodie
“I have always been passionate about science and food. It’s a no-brainer that I took this career path and I’m grateful to be working in the field that I’m most passionate about.
“As an R&D person I have always applied science in my work. In finding better solutions or creating and developing new products, there is always a science behind it. Science has unlocked so many learnings for me and it’s a continuous journey. “Science is the foundation of my work and the source of my creativity.”
Rosela de los Reyes is a Senior R&D Manager in our Ice Cream division, based in Manila in the Philippines.
Sarah: The mentor
“How to get started in science? Just have a go at something. You don’t have to have it all figured out at the beginning of your career. But have a go, learn from it and see where it will take you next.
“Build your network. Look at people you admire, make contact and ask if they would be willing to mentor you. Remember one day you can do the same for others. “And stay curious. It’s what will keep your enthusiasm going throughout your career and drive you to find out new and different things.”
Sarah Leech is R&D Director at our Port Sunlight R&D Hub in the UK.
Asya: The data scientist
“I’m so proud to be a woman who works as a scientist. And to any young women I say if science is what you want to pursue, just go for it. No matter what.
“It’s true that the majority of colleagues around you will be men. That might feel discouraging. But that’s exactly the reason why more women are needed for careers in science.
“I’m data scientist, and my passion is bringing digital solutions to complex problems. Seeing how the outcome of my work amazes people and makes an impact is definitely worth all my hard work.”
Asya Ilhan is a Data Scientist based at our Hive Foods Innovation Centre in the Netherlands.
Vezekile: Improving lives
“My primary purpose in life is to use science to improve the lives of our communities, especially the poor and marginalised.
“I was born the 20th child of 21, in a polygamous family, raised in remote, rural villages. After obtaining a doctorate in chemical engineering, I’ve supported others by promoting scientific careers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and founding a social enterprise that helps elderly women.”
Vezekile Dladla is a Consumer Technical Insights Assistant Manager, based in Durban, South Africa.
Intan Shuhada: The creative thinker
“Science is all about discovery and creative thinking. It really helps to broaden your understanding and appreciation of the world around you. It equips you with excellent problem-solving abilities and extremely transferable skills.
“Science is a vast field and concerns almost everything that our eyes can see and cannot see. It’s vital to ensure the survival of our planet by developing new or alternative solutions for everything we do. Your contribution as a future scientist can play a fascinating and crucial role in that.”
Intan Shuhada Md Yunus is a Regulatory Affairs Assistant Manager, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Neetu: Protecting the planet
“What excites me most about my work is the difference it makes in people’s lives by simplifying everyday challenges. Working in science can be tough sometimes, but a great way to stay motivated is to find people who inspire you.”
“It’s vital to instil interest and increase the involvement of girls in the field of science and future innovations. To young women I would say don’t let anyone take away your imagination, creativity and curiosity.
“With an emerging need to make this planet safer for human survival and sustainability, we need more and more women to come forward and contribute in the fields of STEM.”
Neetu Verma is a Country Category Business Lead, R&D, based in Mumbai, India.
Erica: The skincare specialist
“The world is facing an unprecedented health and environmental crisis. The largest economic disaster since the great depression. Only by developing science can we solve these tough problems, promote economic and social development, and bring people happy and healthy lives.
“Just like our world, our skin is also facing new challenges. Blue light, pollution, psychological stress, for example. Social media means people find misinformation about how to treat this. I believe, as a skin care scientist, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to educate consumers with the right knowledge so they can select the right products.”
Erica Liang is a Senior R&D Manager, based in Shanghai, China.
Sarah: The visionary
“What I love about science is bringing science to life in a product and making a difference to its properties, performance, sensorial qualities or design. “Science is about asking the right questions, based on our intuition. Using data and information. Hypothesising. Experimenting.
“Nowadays data science and digital modelling bring new chances and opportunities to nurture the triangle of intuition, experience and facts. This is driving product development for a better planet, and people make this work meaningful and relevant. Better products for everyone need to come from everyone.”
Sarah Schueddekopf is Head of R&D in DACH region for our Beauty & Personal Care division, based in Hamburg, Germany.
Babita: The adventurer
“The journey to where I stand today has been an adventure. I grew up in a very low-income family in remote north-east India in the 1980s and 1990s. I was the first in my family to graduate but back then a career for a woman was not a priority. And a role in science, even less so.
“After finishing my master’s in theoretical physics, I took another adventure: doing my PhD at a chemistry lab that was dominated by men. I did everything to prove myself as good as them despite their lack of support. Eventually I took a placement in the USA, where I learned the benefit of working in a diverse environment and the value of collaboration. I published 15 articles and filed three patents.
“Now, at Unilever, my role involves developing an innovation ecosystem for R&D. Looking back at how far I have come, it all feels like a dream.”
Babita Baruwati is an Open Innovation Manager, based in Bangalore, India.