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Unstoppable wasps

What can we learn from comic books and toy aisles about getting more women into finance?

There seems to be some blame on women for choosing lower paid careers and creating the gender pay gap themselves. That could only be 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 that only 11% of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) toys were listed as for girls, and 89% of those toys were pink. Shop assistants often intervene if they think a child wants to buy the “wrong” toy. Is it coincidence that women make up less than a quarter of the STEM workforce in the U.S. and only 14% in the UK?

While all encouragement for girls to shun the barrage of marketing messages and take up STEM interests is welcome, many companies still can’t seem to untangle themselves from sexist stereotypes. IBM introduced an engineering program for girls that quickly went under when people heard about the “Hack a hairdryer” concept. EDF Energy has a program of STEM activities for girls called “Pretty Curious.”

Offerings from toy manufacturers don’t all seem to be much better. Barbie has had more than 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 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 The publicity led to the maths-phobic Barbie being withdrawn from sale.

The Computer Engineer Barbie book was also withdrawn from sale as it described Barbie crashing her computer and her male friends having to fix it.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 a deal of 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-colored 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, it 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 sexualized, 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 U.S., “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 recognizes the potential underneath. Of course, she manages to do this while defeating supervillains 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, December 2016.

Image credit: Disney XD / Getty Images

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