DAVOS: Gender inequality is pervasive, with outdated stereotypes and social norms holding back change, but advertising can play an important role in helping to shift attitudes and boost business at the same time, new research suggests.

A study commissioned by Unilever, the FMCG giant, interviewed more than 9,000 men and women across eight markets – Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Turkey, the UK and the US – and found that stereotypes, social norms and unconscious bias were affecting women (60%) – and men (49%) – in their personal lives and careers.

Unveiling the research at a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Paul Polman, Unilever CEO, said that "Empowering women and girls offers the single biggest opportunity for human development and economic growth".

"It goes without saying, it's crucial for business," he added.

Polman also noted that the World Economic Forum's own Gender Gap Report has estimated it may take 170 years before men and women achieve true economic equality. "That's just not good enough," he said. "We need to lead the change in tackling unhelpful stereotypes that hold women – and men – back."

Advertising is one area in which consumers think changes ought to be made. Nearly three out of four respondents (70%) believed the world would be a better place if today's children were not exposed to gender stereotypes in media and marketing.

Unilever has already recognised there is a glaring gap between the worlds of marketing and real women and has moved to "unstereotype" its communications.

"Forty percent of women don't recognise themselves in advertising," Aline Santos, EVP/Global Marketing at Unilever, reported at the 2016 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. "Therefore, you can expect the engagement [rate] is not going to be as good as you want. The impact is also off."

A major Unilever research project identifiedthree key roles a brand can play when it comes to female identity, and gave its brands a framework and common language for navigating those roles.

Communications from a brand can be Regressive, Normative or Progressive, based on three key dimensions of how female identity is portrayed (Role, Personality, Appearance). Progressive communications were shown to be more engaging and impactful than Normative communications.

Data sourced from Unilever; additional content by Warc staff