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Barbie's feminism under the eye of investors

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By Antoine Mach

· 4 min read

Lately, Barbie has been on the verge of obsolescence. The doll seemed to be on the wrong side of history, conveying a stereotypical image of women. So, Barbie's manufacturer, Mattel, teamed up with Warner Bros to produce a film that would correct the situation, modernize the toy's image and boost sales. Bingo.

A huge box-office success, Greta Gerwig's Barbie depicts male-female relations with humor and a feminist message that reaches a wide audience. In Le Monde, academics Marjolaine Boutet and Hélène Breda hail the film's "force of cultural impact": "Never has female gaze, the way a woman looks at the world through the eyepiece of a camera, imposed itself on hundreds of millions of viewers with such force". On France Inter, journalist Victoire Tuaillon believes that the film contains a "satire of masculinity" and a "feminist critique that hits the nail on the head". For her colleague Albane Guichard, "the film advances the cause of women among the general public".

Making men more aware of patriarchy

In China, the film "fuels an intense conversation about the place of women in Chinese society" and "Barbie has become a feminist icon" (Le Monde). In the USA, according to a survey by, 63% of men say the Barbie movie has made them more aware of patriarchy in the workplace. This said divergent opinions are expressed, deploring, for example, the representation of a watered-down feminism and "marketing's ability to stifle social demands" (Audrey Millet).

How do we see things in the world of finance? Let's start by interviewing specialists in gender lens investing, a responsible investment approach using certain environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria. Equileap specializes in rating companies on this theme. This Amsterdam-based agency regularly publishes a ranking of major companies, an index using criteria such as the gender pay gap, the composition of management bodies or policies against sexual harassment. This index is followed by banks and asset managers (UBS, Citibank, Amundi, etc.) to offer dedicated investment solutions to their clients.

Not THE answer

While neither is currently among the leaders, will Mattel and Warner Bros, the companies that produce and distribute Barbie, move up in the ranking, and be credited with the positive impact of this film? The position of Diana van Maasdijk, CEO of Equileap: "In Barbie, Mattel and Warner Bros have touched on some crucial inequalities faced by women in the workplace and in society at large, such as the lack of women in leadership positions. Using this very feminist word, the movie shows that patriarchy exists and is bad for women and men alike. This said Barbie is not THE answer to gender inequality, and we shouldn't regard it for more than what it is: a film. It avoids tackling crucial issues, in particular, the plight of the women who work in Asian workshops to make Barbie dolls". 

Equileap evaluates companies on criteria relating to gender equality in the workplace, from the board room to supply chains. However, this rating agency does not take into account the impact of products. Therefore, "Mattel and Warner Bros will not get any extra points because of the Barbie film", says Diana van Maasdijk. Indirectly, the film may help them evolve: "There is now a great opportunity for Mattel and Warner Bros to up their game, demonstrate coherence and improve gender equality in their own workforce and supply chains. "

Based in San Francisco, Nia Impact Capital is an investment company that also applies gender equality criteria. Unlike Equileap, they also examine product impact in their evaluations. As founder and director Kristin Hull puts it: "With its feminist message, the Barbie film is compatible with our criteria. On the other hand, if we consider all its products, Mattel cannot be included in our portfolio at present. We need more commitment from management on other products and on issues such as equal pay and measures against sexual harassment in the workplace."  

Mattel’s share up 25%

In conventional investment circles, the success of the Barbie movie, which has generated over a billion dollars in sales, is being followed with interest. Mattel's share price has risen by 25% this year. According to marketing professor Eduardo Correa, quoted in USA News: "Barbie marks a before and after because it not only offers entertainment but also introduces a message of social commitment that appeals to different generations". 

This raises the question of whether, in this post-Barbie phase, we will see a greater trend in social messages integrated into brand communications, whether the companies concerned will improve their practices for the sake of consistency, and whether there will be an increased focus on evaluating product impact and cause-related marketing by ESG rating agencies.

This article has been originally published in French in Le Temps. The English version has been edited by Vera Kim. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem. 

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About the author

Antoine Mach is managing partner of Covalence, which he co-founded in 2001. He also teaches sustainable finance at Haute école de gestion de Genève and ISFB.

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