What can we learn from comic books and toy aisles about getting more women into finance?
Women are still often blamed for choosing lower paid careers and creating the gender pay gap themselves. That could only be wholly true if girls and boys are given a level playing field until career choices need to be made.
The latest figures from ChildWise shows that the gender pay gap starts early, with boys in the UK receiving 20% more pocket money than girls.
Children’s lives are saturated with gendered messages. A recent report* showed just 11% of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) toys were listed as ‘for girls’ and 89% of those were pink. Shop assistants often intervene if they think a child wants to buy the ‘wrong’ toy. Is it just coincidence that women make up less than a quarter of the STEM workforce in the US and just 14% in the UK?
So while all encouragement for girls to shun the barrage of marketing messages and take up STEM interests is welcome, many companies still can’t untangle themselves from sexist stereotypes. IBM introduced an engineering program for girls which quickly went under when people heard about the “Hack a Hairdryer” concept. EDF have a program of STEM activities for girls called “Pretty Curious”.
Offerings from toy manufacturers have not been much better. Barbie has had over 150 different careers including astronaut in 1965 and her first of three appearances as presidential candidate was in 1992. But her success in STEM has been limited and in 1993 Teen Talk Barbie uttered such inspiring phrases as “Math is hard”. Activists swapped over the voices with GI Joes so that on Christmas morning children’s new GI Joes professed their love of shopping and Barbies growled “Dead men tell no lies”. The publicity led to the maths-phobic Barbie being withdrawn from sale.
The Computer Engineer Barbie book was also withdrawn from sale as it described Barbie crashing her computer and her male friends having to fix it. The Barbie STEM Kit was released this year to much criticism as it contains a washing machine, shoe rack, and clothes rail, all of which are pink.
Lego, once an advocate for all children’s creative construction, released its lilac coloured Friends sets in 2011, marketed squarely at girls. Featuring five women who live a life of leisure they’re simpler to construct than the standard Lego.
Then in 2014 Lego asked customers to vote on new standard play sets and, following consumer demand, created a set of female scientists using normal Lego figures without being pink-washed. It sold out within a week. Later in 2017 we’ll be able to buy the new Women of NASA set featuring five pioneering scientists, astronauts and mathematicians. This too was voted for by consumers.
In the world of comic books women and girls have represented around 30% of characters for decades. Although the female characters are often highly sexualised, that figure is marginally better than film & television, government and FTSE boards. Recent initiatives from both Marvel and DC have targeted new audiences though characters with a broader range of ethnicities, religions, sexualities, disabilities and genders.
The Unstoppable Wasp is one such new series. A recent immigrant to the USA, The Unstoppable Wasp AKA Nadia Pym (daughter of Hank Pym - Ant-Man and co-founder of SHIELD) seeks female geniuses across the STEM fields to join her work. She finds girls who have been overlooked by the old superhero elite because of their race, disability or gender and recognises the potential underneath. Of course, defeating super villains along the way.
The Unstoppable Wasp encapsulates the joy of science, a love of engineering and creating new inventions just because it’s fun.
Girls don’t need things to be pink, they need things to be exciting.
What can we learn from these STEM marketing efforts about attracting women into finance? Firstly to reach them early, but also to broaden our ideas of what girls like and what they’re capable of. It’s not about changing girls, but about changing the environment to bring out the best they have to offer.
So let’s invite children in to see a boardroom and be CEO for a day. Let’s visit their schools. Let’s reach girls where they are to help to change attitudes right from the very start.
Let’s create more Unstoppable Wasps.
* UK Institution of Engineering and Technology
Image credit: Disney XD / Getty Images