BarbiESG, is it Kenough?

BarbiESG, is it Kenough?

I succumbed and went to see the new Barbie movie, which set a record for the biggest opening weekend for a film by a solo female director (Greta Gerwig). I was never a particular fan of Barbie as a child, so I wasn’t wearing rose-tinted glasses when I entered the cinema. However, I emerged a few hours later feeling like I had experienced the ‘cultural moment’ the reviews had told me about.

The Barbie I was aware of as a child depicted a one-size-fits-all approach to being a woman (while also promoting environmentally unfriendly plastic products). Barbie now represents the diversity of people you see on the street. It exists in 35 skin tones and nine body types, can wear a hijab, have vitiligo, Down syndrome, prosthetic legs or use a wheelchair. Barbie no longer exists to live in a dreamhouse, she can be everything from a marine biologist to a firefighter, dentist or alpine skier. You can also now buy Barbie dolls that are 90% made from recycled ocean plastic.


So, it is safe to say we are seeing huge improvements in the diversity and sustainability of the products, but what about Mattel itself?


The movie managed to poke fun at the ethical history of Barbie and Mattel, while making some hard-hitting points about diversity in all its forms. In one scene, Mattel’s CEO (played by Will Ferrell) justifies the all-male boardroom to Barbie by saying:


We are a company literally made of women… we had Jill Barad as a CEO in the 90s, a woman’s CEO sometime – so that – there’s two,” and further: “I am the son of a mother, I am the nephew to a women aunt”, which resulted in many a cackle of laughter from the cinema audience.


The sentiment certainly resonated with me, particularly in the light of ‘diversity washing’, where companies make claims about diversity within their organisations, but without the evidence to back them up.


The FTSE Women Leaders Review, published in February 2023, acknowledged improvements, but still reflected that half of the executive committees and their direct reports of FTSE 250 companies in the UK have less than one-third representation from women.


Mattel’s CEO is a man and the firm’s sparse history of female CEOs cited by Ferrell is true (as it is for many companies). Thankfully Mattel’s board is more diverse, with five of the 12 board members female. And while gender representation is important, so is diversity of ethnicity, age and thought.


Barbie is a joyous celebration of diversity, but also a movie with a serious message for companies in the real world.


Important disclosures

More about the authors

Emma Hall Investment Analyst

Emma Hall, investment analyst, is a member of the equities team and is responsible for company research for the Global Sustainable Equity strategy.

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