Podcast transcript: How business leaders can unlock social equity

34 min approx | 18 May 2023

Mona Bitar:

Hello everyone, I’m Mona Bitar, EY’s Vice Chair in the UK and Ireland, and a member of the EY UK Diversity, Equity and Inclusiveness council.

You’re listening to Strong When We Belong, a podcast series created and produced by EY in the UK.

At EY, we believe that a strong sense of belonging can lead to better collaboration, retention and business performance. This series is dedicated to sharing uplifting conversations and personal stories about belonging in the context of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. You will often hear this shortened and referenced throughout as DE&I.

Each episode features a conversation led either by myself or one of the other members of EY’s DE&I council, including Shaun Scantlebury, Joanne Conway and Fatima Tresh.

We really hope that these conversations inspire individuals and organisations to think differently and drive positive action and change. I know that storytelling makes a massive difference and I really enjoyed working on the series.

Shaun Scantlebury:

Hello, everyone. My name is Shaun Scantlebury and I’m a partner at EY. I lead our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consultancy Services, and I also sit on the EY UK & Ireland DE&I council. Welcome to the Strong When We Belong podcast series or welcome back to those who are returning to the series. When we launched this series, the idea was to share stories and perspectives that we hope will increase understanding and drive progress on DE&I. Today our focus is on social equity, and I am delighted to be joined today by Aline Santos, who is the Chief Brand and Chief Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer at Unilever. I will let Aline introduce herself more extensively afterwards because she will do it better than me, but what I did want to say before we get started is how much I’ve enjoyed my previous conversations with Aline on this topic. So, I feel really lucky for us all today that we get to explore this topic together. So, Aline, please, can I ask you to introduce yourself to those listening in today?

Aline Santos Farhat:

Of course, Sean, and thank you so much for inviting me for this fantastic podcast. I love the name of it. We are strong when we belong, so I love it. So, yes, I think you did a very good introduction of my role, but if I become a little bit more personal, so I am Aline. I am Brazilian. I am a white woman. I have long blonde hair. I am wearing a beige jacket today, and my pronouns are she and her. So, a big pleasure to be here with you and to talk about something that is very close to my heart - equity.


Thank you so much. Thank you. I think with these conversations we are hoping to reach quite a broad audience, Aline, so I always think it’s quite helpful to start with a definition rather than us assuming that people know what we’re talking about, particularly when we’re talking about an issue such as equity. So, I might start with a question around the definition, if I may, and that is, for some people, they may feel that the language has moved from equality to equity, but I’d be quite keen to hear your perspectives and hear you explain what you believe to be the difference between these two things.

Santos Farhat:

Thank you, Sean. I think that equity and equality are both very positive concepts and most of the time they are used in a very positive way as well. They are both related to fairness, so this is great. However, I think that equity goes a little bit beyond. I think equity recognises that we do not all start from the same place, that we all have different lives, different experiences, that we go through different barriers. So, if you think about our experiences, we are coming from different places. We have different races, different ages, different gender identities, sometimes a different religion, country of origin, sex orientation, marital status, disability, social class. There are so many nuances, so many dimensions, of course all the possible combinations that you have as well through all these dimensions, so the intersectionalities that can happen. So, with those differences, we all have different needs.

So, to this end, companies may be required to use interventions in the measures to compensate for systemic barriers, systemic bias that we have in companies today, that we have in society today so that individuals can fully access opportunities. There’s someone who said something very simple to describe the difference between equality and equity. He says equality is giving everyone a shoe. Equity is giving everyone a shoe that fits. That is, I think, a very simple way to make a distinction between the two concepts. I think that equality is more about treating people the same, like the example of the shoe, so that everyone can have the sense of belonging. But equity is taking the differences into account so that all individuals can thrive, can really access all the opportunities. Since 2021, Unilever has adopted equity as a key driver of our equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts within Unilever.


Brilliant. I love that example of the shoe. I’ve seen lots of depictions over the years of the difference, but actually the shoe analogy resonates very easily. So, thank you for sharing that with us. I think it’s important to be able to use language, which is relatable and something that I read recently, Aline, really brought this home to me and that was, I read recently a piece of research. It was a piece of Gartner research actually and it had a statistic in it which both concerned me but at the same time represented something that I recognised from my conversations with leaders. That statistic was that 42% of employees believe that their organisation’s DE&I efforts are divisive. So, when I first looked at that, I thought, gosh, what might be driving that? It’s interesting because I think this year’s International Women’s Day theme was Embrace Equity. I wonder if some of the driver for that was perhaps in response to the pushback that the concept of equity was receiving, you know, to embrace equity. So, I’m keen to get your perspective on this, Aline, and ask, why do you think we might be seeing more resistance to equity efforts today?

Santos Farhat:

So, Sean, that has not been my personal experience at least at Unilever. That I can tell you, but I can explore some hypotheses with you, but certainly not my experience. So, when UN defined the theme for International Women’s Day for 2023 as Embrace Equity, for us at Unilever it was a great choice because it so much aligned with what we believe, so much aligned with the campaign that we actually started in 2021. So, in 2021 we started campaigning about, equality isn’t equal, equity is. We created a very visual way to talk about this and maybe, if there is a possibility, we can share later on with you. But to explain to everyone in our company that people had different starting points in life, different experiences, and the company was very keen to understand those differences and create ways to really support individuals so that everybody can really have full access to the opportunities.

So, when we started this campaign, we understood that people actually were receiving with both arms very open because I think that everyone understands that they have their uniqueness, that their experiences are different, and therefore there are things that need to be accommodated. So, if you are, for instance… If you are a person with disabilities, if you have some kind of visual impairment, the sort of support that the company needs to give you is different from someone who doesn’t have that visual impairment. Or if you are part of the LGBTQI+ community and you are going to be expatriated, you don’t want the policy of the company to give benefits only if you are married to someone. You can have a partner. That is going to be sufficient to receive the same benefits.

So, there are so many nuances and sometimes policies of companies. They were done 50 years ago, and they were done in a very non-diverse way. Today there is a much higher demand, I think, that it’s very critical for us to open our eyes and to get awakened for the fact that people are different, require different support systems. It is an illusion that we can just say, yes, everybody has access to the same opportunities. If we don’t address the systemic bias that we have in our system, this is not going to happen.

So, for us at Unilever, we have done a round of sessions around the world. We had panels around the world. All of the panels were about equity. Because we were celebrating International Women’s Day, it was more focussed on gender. We had men and women participate in those panels and they were talking about the challenges that they are seeing in terms of equity from the point of view of gender. Gender is another fascinating area, isn’t it? So, what is gender today? So, with that, what we are trying to do is to create a higher level of education for our employees in terms of the concept of equity and the differences between equity, equality, inclusion, diversity. All of them have their different angles, but we are also trying to promote the sense that each of them should also have participation in this program in making us a more equitable company.

So, we asked each of them to create a post about what equity is for each of them. So, if you open our LinkedIn pages, Unilever pages, you will see lots of posts of people talking about what equity means to each of them. So that becomes more personal. That becomes more integrated in the way they are looking at the program on DE&I and of course that helps them to understand what equity really means. If other companies are having challenges or people are having challenges with equity, it’s probably because they feel that we are so far away of getting into equity. There is so much to be done and indeed it’s true. There’s so much to be done that maybe people were looking at that and saying, this is a very faraway ideal. But what I would say is that, even if it is a faraway ideal, it’s time for us to wake up, smell fresh coffee, and start. We cannot wait any other day to start this journey. This is a very important topic. The world needs to become more equitable and it’s time for everyone to join in.


I will come onto asking you a little bit around the value of the pursuit of social equity, but in listening to you speak there, something which it brought to mind was the way we at EY have also tried to bring the concept of equity to life through storytelling. In our Uplift Social Equity campaign, we did release a series of videos of people telling their stories. I love the fact that actually you’ve educated, and you’ve said, over to you. You help us all understand what equity means to you. I think this is really important because part of the beauty and the challenge of equity is that it can mean something different to everyone because, to your point, we all come with our different experiences which may present us with barriers, etc. that we need to navigate in order to progress both in our working lives and outside of our working lives as well.

But, Aline, something which I found quite intriguing in your role is, one, you’re very busy, but you’ve got two roles. You’ve got a role which is focussed on brand, and you’ve got the role focussed on EDI. I’ve always noticed that you talk about EDI both in terms of what it means within the organisation and beyond. So, I’m keen to ask you, how do you think we can encourage business leaders to think more critically about the value of social equity?

Santos Farhat:

Very important question, Sean. I think that businesses can only thrive if the societies in which they operate are thriving. So, businesses are totally, utterly, dependent on society and our planet. So, if there is no society that is functioning, businesses cannot function as well. I think that it’s time for us to avoid being bystanders in a world of deep-rooted and pervasive inequalities that blight the lives of millions every day at work and also at home. So, I think that our responsibility as businesses is a responsibility that is the same size as our privilege. Many big businesses have huge responsibility because they have big privileges.

So, I think it is time for business to take their responsibility, to take on this challenge. I think that I am at least at Unilever convinced that driving equity, diversity, and inclusion makes our business stronger, better. Society needs equity. Equity can unlock positive change that business can benefit from. There are so many things that, if we can change society, can come back as a positive for businesses. If you think about, for instance, tackling economic inequality … wow. Imagine how much this can provide for businesses. So first provide for people, but then there is this implication that is so positive for businesses as well. Imagine if we think about creating a more fair and diverse talent market. Today it’s not. Imagine if we could improve the health and the wellbeing of people. So, all these elements that would improve equity for the world would improve equity for our businesses and improve the results in terms of P&L of our business. So, it’s all positive. Everyone who believes in a more just, more equitable society needs to work together to make things change. I think that means stepping up to fight harder for equity, for diversity, for inclusion. The ideal world of big companies would be companies that have, first to start, a representation of society in their workforce. That their workforce would be like a mirror of the society that they are serving. If we really want to understand our consumers, our customers, we need to have a representation of who they are in our company so that things can come very naturally, very organically, very right the first time. Because we know who we are serving because we are the same people that we are serving. Sometimes in companies we still have a big gap in terms of who we are serving and who we are. So, becoming more equitable, we will attract people that today perhaps are not attracted to big businesses.

For me, the realisation came a long time ago in my marketing function actually when I was still working in Brazil. This was in the 90s and I developed the first mix of products that was tailor-made for black women. In Brazil, 60% of the population is mixed race, so we have a huge contingent of black people in our country in Brazil. Yet there was nothing that was created especially for that community. So, we developed this product. It was under the brand Vaseline Intensive Care, so it was a very special moisturisation product that we developed. I developed the first ad that showed black women as protagonists, as the stars of the ad. Nowadays it’s absolutely bizarre to believe that this didn’t exist, but that was the reality in the 90s. When I launched that, some people had reservations. What does this mean? What’s going to happen?

And of course, it was a huge success. A huge success. Because half of the population at last started to see themselves represented. Represented in advertising, represented in terms of how we do innovation, so it was again another wake-up moment for everyone in the industry. After that, many other companies, many other brands started to wake up and say, wow, yeah, what an untapped target audience that we never cared for. Of course, that translates into a fantastic business opportunity as well. So, representing people in the right way is the starting point of everything that we are talking about. When you get started and when you started to see the reaction, the sort of feedback you receive from the consumers, the encouragement that you receive, that is just a door that opens that will never, ever close again. That’s very much where we are at Unilever today.

I think that one big moment for us was in 2016 when we decided to do something bigger. We decided to go much more systemic in terms of how we wanted to un-stereotype our advertising and to create better representation of all the different angles of ED&I, how we represent women, how we represent men, how we represent different races and ethnicities, different sexual orientations, people with disabilities. When we started to un-stereotype our advertising, my gosh, it was incredible, the response we got from consumers. It was really incredible. Our brands become much more loved by consumers, more consumed by consumers, and that was an encouragement for us to do more.

The results were so good, Sean, that we decided that this is something that we wanted to share with everyone. We wanted to share even with our competitors. If you think about equity, diversity, and inclusion, there are so many mountains for us to climb, that we need everybody. This is an area that Unilever doesn’t want to compete with anyone. Everything we know at Unilever we want to share. Because we need everyone in the world to join in to help us to drive to a better place, a place where the world becomes more fair, more equitable, where people can really participate. Of course, that un-stereotype movement became the un-stereotype alliance with the UN women and now we are in several countries. We have more than 250 brands and big global companies participating. All the social platforms. So, it became really a movement that we are super-proud of. But again, it’s just starting. There are many peaks and many mountains that we still need to climb.


I think there were some … thank you. Thank you, I think, for being so generous with those thoughts because I think there is so much in there, Aline. So let me just recap on a couple of points there if I may because I think there are some really important things I want to reflect back on in that example. There was something you said about being a bystander at the beginning, which I thought was quite important. So, I’m going to reflect back on that about people being a bystander. Just talk a little bit more about what you meant by that in terms of, we can’t be bystanders.

Santos Farhat:

I think that all of us, Sean… I’m sure it has happened to you. It has certainly happened to me, moments when you are in the room, and someone says something that is completely inappropriate to someone else. And someone is either being racist, someone is being sexist, someone is being ageist, all these ists that are a disease in our life. Sometimes you don’t know how to react, so you say nothing. When you say nothing, you change nothing. It’s like you are the perpetrator as well. It’s like you are the same as the perpetrator. In a bigger scheme, for companies as well that are watching lots of things happening and doing nothing about, we are not collaborating to change things. So, saying nothing is changing nothing and I think this is something that we really need to change and flip.

So, the more we can nudge people to say something, to do something, not to be a bystander but to become an upstander of that situation, is what we need to do. Because stereotypes, as we were talking before, are so prevalent in everything that we do. So, to change this will take time and that’s why it’s so important that every time you see someone being bullied or someone being called something that they shouldn’t or sometimes not even that offensive but inappropriate, you need to correct the person and you have to say, this is not okay. So, at the very least, say that. This is not okay. So that was what I meant when I said that we need to stop being a bystander. This is for individuals. This is for companies. This is for governments. This is for everyone.


Aline, another part of what you shared with us there was this sense that if you have diversity in your organisation, this sense of identifying opportunities for improvement in social equity might be somewhat more natural to an organisation. It got me thinking. Some organisations are maybe not giving equal weighting to these concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion and how important it might be to hold all of those still in your mind together. So, what’s your perspective on that?

Santos Farhat:

I think that all these aspects are slightly different, so there are different angles on the same territory. I think diversity is about achieving a demographic mix of people who include those who are from marginalised and underrepresented groups within our organisation. As I was saying before, ideally organisations would have a mirror of the societies that they serve. So, the same makeup of society would be a good recipe for a company as well because that would mean that we really, truly understand the consumers that we are serving. So that is the aspect of representation that diversity brings.

The aspect of inclusion is more related to the act of creating a work culture in which individuals can fully participate. So, they feel really invited to participate, to put their point of view on the table, to fight for their ideas, so very critical. Sometimes we can have the right diversity, but we don’t have inclusion and therefore the objective of diversity or having the representation of people is not fully completed because people don’t have a voice. Equity refers to eliminating the systemic barriers that inhibit full participation while providing equal access to opportunities for all, providing support systems that different groups may require. So, the three elements, they really need to work together in order that we can create this space in companies where people have this strong feeling of belonging and contributing at the same time. So, I think that the three angles are absolutely critical.


Brilliant. Thank you, thank you. So, there’s one last point I wanted to cover with you. When I think about the sort of storytelling we’ve referred to, that both of our organisations have tried to do, it’s got me wondering whether empathy is the key to equity. What’s your perspective on that?

Santos Farhat:

Sympathy, empathy… They are of course positive words, but I think my take, Sean, is that there is a word that would be better than these two other words. The word that I would choose would be compassion. I think that when you are talking about empathy, you are talking about putting yourself in the shoes of someone else and feeling everything that someone else is feeling. So again, it is of course positive, but compassion in contrast… I think that has a different take. In compassion you are not putting the same shoes. You are not feeling what the person is feeling. You are a little bit detached, but you are respecting the journey of that person. You are respecting whatever happens to that person.

You are paying a lot of attention to all that, without any judgment. That’s another important one. So, when you are really compassionate, you are respecting the journey that someone else has gone through, without any judgment, but more importantly, you are ready to act. That is the main difference. Sometimes when you get into empathy, you get so much into the emotion of the other person that it paralyses you. With compassion you can observe that, you can respect, you can connect, you have it without judgment, and you can therefore do something about it because you have the energy about it. You know that I am a big fan of metaphysics and even at a metaphysical level the word compassion has a vibration that is much higher than the vibration of the word empathy. So, if there is a word to unlock equity, yeah, I would choose compassion rather than empathy.


I think that’s really… When I speak to you, I find myself thinking quite deeply. This last point has got me thinking really quite deeply. I’m just really glad to have brought this to colleagues listening in to this podcast. The reason it’s got me thinking quite deeply, Aline, is because when I’m thinking about my theory of change that we’re talking to organisations about. When I’m trying to break it down to its most simple form, I say we’re looking for really three things, understanding, care, and then the ability to act, can. What you’ve got me thinking about when you said, sometimes when you get so much into another person’s shoes, you might feel paralysed.

Santos Farhat:



It does have me thinking about, in trying to dial up the care in individuals, so often you do get people who almost might feel so weighed down, by that increased understanding and that emotional connection to it that their next question is often, so what can I do, but not in a proactive sense, almost in a sense of helplessness. Yeah? It’s too big. It’s too hard. Where do I start? Give me the silver bullet to get through this thing. I just want to… So, you’ve got me thinking really quite deeply about the word compassion and how it can create that connectivity. But potentially without the weight, or the expectation that you really ever could put yourself in somebody else’s shoes when you’ve never really had that set of circumstances. So, I think that’s really interesting. You’ve given me a lot to think about with that last point there.

Santos Farhat:

I think you’ve got it. I think you’ve got it, Sean. And, in this territory that we are talking about, equity, diversity, and inclusion, there are so many different angles. There are so many different facets on how we are going to be becoming a more equitable world. So, it’s almost endless, but at the same time fascinating. The good news is that when you start on this journey, you cannot stop. When you start talking about this and other people start engaging, it’s like a magnet as well. More and more people want to talk about it, want to see how they can contribute. I think that you are on the right path. Compassion is my suggestion to you as a starting point. So please, please, please, let’s respect everyone’s journey, but let’s also do something about it. Let’s not get into paralysis. The last thing we should do is to judge. Please don’t apply any stereotypes, morals, or anything. Don’t judge. Just accept as it is and see, what can you do to help if you can?


So, Aline, look, we’ve been finishing our podcasts by asking our guests to finish a sentence for us. The sentence is, I belong when… So, could I ask you to finish that sentence for us?

Santos Farhat:

I belong when I feel a sense of equity in the room.


Aline, I want to thank you for your time today. I have really enjoyed the conversation. As I say, I’m going to be walking away from this thinking, my mind is going to be buzzing once again with thoughts, but I think there’s also a number of important messages in there for leaders and, I think, a fantastic coverage of what equity is, what it means, what it means to different people, how you might help organisations engage with the concept of equity. The role of business in trying to drive social equity, and the value. So, thank you. I think we’ve covered a lot of bases in a short period of time. So, thank you once again and thank you to all of you for listening to the Strong When We Belong podcast.


Thank you for listening to this episode of Strong When We Belong. We look forward to sharing more stories in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can subscribe to this series on Spotify and find it on ey.com. You can join the conversation on social media too using the hashtag Strong When We Belong. Tell us…how do you feel and where do you feel when you belong?