top of page
  • Rhodora Palomar-Fresnedi

Gender Equality and Your Unique Contribution

I suppose International Women’s Day is a fitting reminder for every organization to reflect on its own organization. It is a time to look at what we can change in our organization before we attempt to change the world.

Good morning.

I’d like to share with you three stories from my life and the lessons I learned from them.

The year was 2000. I was in London. I was one of the few female executives of Unilever.

Picture this. The Dutch Chairman of the company was hosting an open forum with Asia Pacific leaders. He was talking about the growth of the business. There were two critical facts that relate to the future of the business: first, growth and long-term survival will come from outside US and Europe. Second, 80% of consumer-purchasing decisions were made by women. Unilever is multi-local, multi-national, so we needed to develop local talents in order to grow. And we needed to develop women leaders. The situation was dire because the top 100 leaders were 80% European, 50% of them Anglo-Dutch. There was ONE woman.

In this meeting, the Chairman asked if the company always told the truth to its employees. I raised my hand, one amongst a few. He spotted me. I was shaking. I was downright nervous. It didn’t help that the room fell deathly silent. The eyes of my male colleagues were almost saying, “Don’t do it. Career suicide.” They knew what I was about to say was something controversial.

I took a deep breath and said, “NO, we do not always tell the truth.”

I cited several examples to support my claim. To close my argument, I said: “For years, we’ve said that we want diversity, we want local talents to lead our businesses, we want women in leadership positions. But we have a gap between intention and results. Just now, we’ve gathered to talk about growth in Asia. But look around you, how many Asians do you see?”

The room went silent again. Then it erupted in a thunderous applause and a standing ovation. I struck a chord, a sentiment that people had long wanted to say, but didn’t.

I was still shaking when I sat down. It was a question of telling a difficult truth, or staying with the convenient lie. I have always chosen the former. And in that moment, not knowing whether I still have a job, I felt safe in the comfort of my own honesty.

I have always taken charge of my own career.

And that’s the first career lesson I’d like to share.


The moment I sat down, I thought that was the end of my Unilever career. Pay no heed to the applause and ovation.

But fate dealt me with a different hand. It became the beginning of my best years in the corporate center.

I ended up being given the challenge of building a more diverse Unilever. And I did.

I worked on the business case for diversity. I researched the women in management issue. In crafting the change, I worked with the seven executive committee members. To change the company of 334,000 employees, I first needed to help the seven ExCo members change.

We built scorecards, not one that focused on quotas and numbers, but one that was akin to tilling the soil before you plant. The scorecard was largely about setting the infrastructure and changing behavior. Fake it till you make it approach. The measures included the following: engaging in reciprocal mentoring, participating or leading courageous conversations, creating a diverse selection panel.

I met with each of the ExCo members regularly to check how they were progressing with the scorecard and supported them when necessary.

Our efforts on global diversity enabled a much more diverse Unilever by 2010. By the time I left in 2011, Unilever had 3 women on the board, and the top leadership team included someone from Zimbabwe. The percentage of women in the top leadership more than doubled, with more in the pipeline. It was just the beginning. Even as we speak, the work on diversity and inclusion in Unilever continues.

Fast Forward to Singapore

My husband elected to stay with our kids when we were in England, so father and daughters and son were very close. Still are.

When we moved to Singapore, my husband chose to go back to a corporate job and accepted a regional assignment. We were, once again: dual careers. Between my global job and his regional job, there were weeks that our household had only one parent. By that time, our youngest child, Jason, was seven years old.

One night, our little boy had difficulty sleeping. He was looking for his Dad who was on business travel. Jason kept asking for his Dad, wanted him to tuck him in, and ended up near tears. I explained that his Dad was on business travel. We had a question and answer session on a similar thread, why work, why be away, etc. It ended with a question that pierced me to my core.

His question was, “Why can’t YOU work, Mom, and Dad stay at home?”


It was at that moment that I realized I did not want the full consequence of having a fast rising career. That is to say, ME, in the lead role of my career drama and everyone else in my family as supporting cast members.

I would like to define success as our family traveling together in life. Which meant my husband and I would have a balanced career - neither one of us going too far ahead or too far behind the other. Which meant our children would not miss out too much on the presence of a parent or ideally, parents.

I thought I was comfortable with the answer our two girls gave me when they were young. They used to ask me why I couldn’t go to the coffee mornings of the mothers or why I didn’t bake cookies for school. I asked them, in return, “Do you want home-baked cookies from me or designer jeans? I can’t do both.” They chose designer jeans.

It turned out, I was not only missing out on the coffee mornings. Though we spend good family time together once or twice every year, I realized I was missing out on parts of their childhood. I didn’t even know all of their teachers.

Which leads me to my second career lesson.

YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL. (But not at the same time.)

Moving On from a Global Career

I worked with four Chairmen/CEOs of Unilever globally. I remained a consultant during the transition for the current CEO and thereafter, my husband and I decided to define our own version of success. We adapted a saying from our good friend, Richard Leider:

“being in the place where you belong, with the people you love, doing meaningful work, on purpose”

We believe that our bigger contribution is in Asia. We have always been aware that there are many western talents helping the west, but we have less support for our own countries. So we decided we’ll find our way back to the Philippines and give back.

His platform is leadership development. My own conviction lies in diversity and inclusion. My passion and commitment are in building a more inclusive world, from wherever we are. It is a world where anyone, no matter what race, gender, creed, religion, sexual orientation, education, background, or a different ability, will be able to say,

“I am valued, I belong, I make a difference.”

And so we came home.

And I was gifted with the opportunity to build and run Unilab Foundation and Unilab International.

Both jobs require a perspective for diversity and inclusion, especially the former.

One of our programs at Unilab Foundation is Project Inclusion, which is the employment of persons with disabilities, beginning with Persons with Intellectual and Development Disabilities like Autism and Downs Syndrome.

I approached the work with the same method as I did global diversity in Unilever – with research, management science, engagement of the top leaders.

Today, we have enabled employment of at least 12 people with autism. It is just the beginning.

I have always believed in progress not perfection. Just keep on moving. Women in Management. Diversity in Inclusion. We have to begin wherever we are. At the start, we need to grant each other an “amnesty period” - a safe time and a safe space to express our individual beliefs. And move from there.

One of my favorite tips is this: You don’t have to change. But you need to get into courageous conversations --- conversations where you can fully be yourself and express your own beliefs. When the conversations are good, change happens.

Today, I feel synergized. I feel fulfilled. My whole life experience comes together to this moment where I’m taking the responsibility to give back with everything I have. Part of that giving back, is paving the way for others.

I was the first Filipina to be in the Unilever Philippines board and the first Global Vice President for Diversity in the Corporate Center. Those would have been less useful if nobody followed me. What use is cracking the glass ceiling if nobody else can follow? It is the task of every leader that when there is a first, it will not end up “the only”.

So why is women in management on International Women’s Day worth the highlight? After all, shouldn’t we be celebrating women EVERY DAY?

I suppose International Women’s Day is a fitting reminder for every organization to reflect on its own organization. It is a time to look at what we can change in our organization before we attempt to change the world. For ADB, it seems an imperative to address Women in Management in ADB to build capability to address the sustainable development goal on women.

As my favorite campaign goes: we need to change the world from wherever we are. “Change the world from here.”

In fact, that’s what I did. I didn’t change Unilever. I didn’t change the world from the outside. I started with me.

I had to learn how to deal with diversity and inclusion. I had to learn to communicate in a way that the leaders would hear me. I had to create the safe space where they would feel safe to talk. I had the same approach with our kids. There’s this book, “‘Listen, so your kids would talk. Talk, so your kids would listen.”

As I transitioned from one role to another, one company, one country to another, I have but one guiding force: being true to my calling. I should follow my own heart so I could be a contribution to others.

And thus my final lesson comes from a line in a poem by another friend, David Whyte. It explains my answer to the question of my former CEO, when he asked me why I was always planning my way out of a job.

He asked, “Why are you always leaving?”

I answered, “No. I am not always leaving. I am always arriving.”

I am always arriving at the one thing that makes me alive.

That is my third lesson.

Lesson 3

Anything or anyone that does not make you alive is too small for you.

Let me close by sharing with you the poem.

Sweet Darkness

When your eyes are tired

the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone

no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark

where the night has eyes

to recognize its own.

There you can be sure

you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb


The night will give you a horizon

further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.

The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds

except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet

confinement of your aloneness

to learn

anything or anyone

that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.


"Gender Equality and Your Unique Contribution," Keynote Speech of Rhodora Palomar-Fresnedi during the Asian Development Bank International Women’s Day Celebration last March 8, 2016 in Manila Philippines

5 views0 comments


bottom of page