As executive director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is a leading advocate of gender equality, working since 2013 globally to combat critical issues like domestic violence, childhood marriage and inequitable laws that deny women the same rights as men. Mlambo-Ngcuka was actively involved in the struggle to end apartheid in her home country of South Africa. From 2005 to 2008, she served as the country’s deputy president, overseeing programs to combat poverty and bring the advantages of a growing economy to the poor, with a particular focus on women. She was a member of parliament from 1994 to 1996 as part of South Africa’s first democratic government.

In 2017, she enlisted the advertising industry to help fight for gender equality by partnering to eradicate widespread stereotypes that are widely seen in media content and advertising. This summer, she received the 2019 Cannes LionHeart award for her leadership of the industry-wide diversity initiative, The Unstereotype Alliance. Mlambo-Ngcuka spoke with the Holmes Report about her work around the world and how communicators can use the power of their platforms to help in the fight for social justice. An edited transcript:

What is the scope of UN Women’s work?

As the United Nations entity that is responsible for advancing gender equality in the world, we try to focus on the issues that create systematic change. “(We work to) change laws … giving legal advice, working with countries around the world. And it’s all the laws that discriminate against women … violence, equal pay … in a year we helped to change 50 laws. But there are so many (discriminatory) laws around the world, we still have a long way to go. The problem is that you actually have gender inequality in statutes. Women do not have recourse.

There is also inequality in programs. We need policy with a gender lens to protect women better, and prevent crimes against women. This is one of the areas we are particularly concerned about and we want to get it as right as we can. Police exist in every country, and If they don’t do a good job for women, perpetrators do not have a reason to restrain themselves (from causing harm) because they get away with it. We also support women in leadership and in the political process. Where ever there is an at election, we support them in running campaigns and, in some countries, protect themselves from violence and cyber-bullying. We work with women in war zones, and one of the biggest challenges is the amount of sexual violence in those countries. Rape is a weapon of war in some situations. We rescue victims and help them to overcome the trauma; some law enforcement and protection is also a possibility.

Yet with women in such dire circumstances, your organization still works to address the issues facing women who live or work in more mainstream environments.

We are very much passionate about young people and increasing the role and participation of young people in all endeavors In STEM, supporting women to get into technology, careers, and training. Right now we are struggling because the numbers are not as high as we need them to be. In some countries, women are graduating in higher numbers but not being appointed (to jobs in those fields).

How has the communications industry perpetuated these problems?

We did an in-depth study in about 150 countries in 2015, 20 years after the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (an agenda for women’s empowerment approved at the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women) looking at progress and the challenges. One common challenge in all the countries were the stereotypes and the norms holding women back. Which is why you could have women on Wall Street being underpaid, in such sophisticated and highly advanced environments. Women are also discriminated in a sugar cane field in Brazil, in a factory in India and a farm in South Africa. No matter how important, highly educated they may be, the stereotypes are so deep that the pace of change is slowed down because having stereotypes of women is OK.

So today you are working with the ad industry to change that, correct?

We have gone out of our way to forge a relationship with the advertising industry about the role it can play in influencing the way society sees women and the importance of not perpetuating negative stereotypes. We already are working in an environment where discrimination exists. Advertising can help by showing the other side of who women can be and who women are. Even where women succeed (there is bias).

In 2017, different institutions that can influence public opinion, stereotypes all got together. We realized the one institution and industry that has outreach in many countries is advertising and partnering with them could help us speak to people we don’t have the opportunity to speak to. And creativity, they can communicate in the manner (that reaches people). The advantages, in some cases, for instance, would be those who discriminate against women (in business) would see that having more women in positions a man would otherwise occupy is short-sighted because diversity does add value add institutions.

How do you impress that upon business, which is still grappling with bias?

As leaders like CEOs or presidents of organizations have a bigger interest, they have to use the authority and their leadership to bypass (institutional discrimination) to push the agenda forward and make sure (it is implemented). The value to be gained by women is what is paramount, and drives changes.

In the Unstereotype Alliance, we are reaching out to leaders of companies and showing them how the lack of representation of women denies them the success that their institutions are about … one angle is about. It is a positive for GDP of countries to include women, it makes companies more profitable in addition to the human rights issue. And fortunately a lot of the studies showing the profits and benefits from diversity have been done by the private sector itself. For those not passionate about human rights, they may be passionate about profit.

Is the communications industry onboard with you?

We have created the membership. We have done studies and attitude studies with the clients and the markets that the industry advertises to in order to gauge their own understanding and attitudes toward gender. We found (globally) customers do not like stereotypes — men and women. They prefer advertising to have positive (global) role models. And the majority, 80% percent, of those surveyed think gender equality is important and needs to be achieved and 50% of men recognized that a lot of violence is domestic violence and homes are not safe. Something needs to be done.

Together with industry, we have reached out to diversified members of alliance. We started with companies in US, and now in Brazil and Turkey and UAE and Japan. Our idea is that we will increase the number of conversations and the type of stereotypes (we address).

(The advertising industry) has been having a conversation amongst themselves. Now their conversations have become even more focused and intense and actually changing the profile of the people they hire. We have created a metric that measures the biases entrenched in advertising, In the next three years we want to stay focused on a clear direction and changes in advertising to come out.

With all the human rights abuses you fight against, is it ever difficult to reconcile the issues facing women in far better circumstances, like pay equity?  

What may be important, is critical for US audiences, for women and girls, may not be the same critical issue for women in India, like child marriage. It’s critical there to have images that show the dangers of children married early, the health as well as the long term economic impact. It may not be a big issue in the UK — but sexual harassment may be.

How do you get those messages through to business?

Now we are having advertising and companies at a CEO level wanting creatives in those industries also to go through unconscious bias tests before they produce an advertisement.  The Unstereotype Alliance is to make sure all advertisers actually have this in their DNA. The nice thing about the industry is that it can also do this in a subtle way. The way in which advertisements are presented enable this to be done in a manner that is not preachy. So the subtleness is part of it. We are not subtle in the UN, so it’s good to be with people who operate that way.

Where are we at?

We have a half-filled glass. There is progress we have seen. The fact that today we actually have the possibility to take issues like equal pay and see change happen. The fact that we are also able to have the laws so women have recourse and people are able to use those laws in their countries to advance their alliances where women would struggle to have access to economic resources, inheriting land. We have those but it is slow. We need the pace to accelerate and we need scale.

You actually need the people with some capacity to change the situation to be changemakers in their own right But at the same time we also have pushback. Now even some of the gains already made could be eroded, like in the US onslaught of (attacks) on reproductive rights, That is setting us back. So there is no rest for us. Not doing something is not an option. We have to keep moving.