What if ‘Fearless Girl’ had been ‘Fearless Woman’?

I recently ran one of our Culture Club Workshops on Park Avenue in Manhattan for a major financial services client, but the day before I made a small detour. I was keen to see the acclaimed ‘Fearless Girl’. Interestingly, while the majority of tourists were there to see ‘Charging Bull’, against which she is juxtaposed, a small but consistent group of female fans were there to have their picture with this pint-sized heroine. She was great to see, but reminded me of how her presence is not a clear-cut nod to ‘girl-power’. Christine Emba’s piece, which first appeared in the Washington Post ‘Girl vs Bull is a False FaceOff is a great explanation as to how politically charged the piece is.

First, the sculptor of Charging Bull is suing to have Fearless Girl removed because it gives new threatening meaning to his own sculpture. Indeed he’s claimed State Street now owe him as this form of ‘advertising’ for them only works because the girl is in opposition to his original statue, giving them commercial gain – something he never intended. To this request for her removal, the NYC Mayor Di Blasio, tweeted ‘Men don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need Fearless Girl’. However, the real rub about Fearless Girl is that the statue may do more to market a new SHE index fund, which contains companies that have a better than average proportion of female leadership than actual progress on gender balance. State Street Global Advisors, who commissioned the piece, still only has 3 women on its 11 person board. And worked well it has, it’s been estimated State Street has benefitted from $7.4M of free publicity.

Furthermore, the fact the statue’s a girl, rather than a grown woman, is also potentially less threatening. At InclusIQ, we see many clients who initially think the answer to their own diversity issues is about working with school age girls and ethnic minorities. ‘There’s not enough talent in the pipeline’ is their battle cry. Whilst that may be true, it is also a convenient excuse for lack of action with grown women and men in their own organisations. This excuse falsely reassures them they don’t have to act now as long as the next generation is suitably inspired. Indeed the artist, Kristen Visbal took pains to make the statue look as non-threatening as possible, saying “I made sure to keep her features soft; she’s not defiant, she’s brave, proud and strong, not belligerent”. However, as I looked at the statue it made me wonder: Did we miss an opportunity for a wider debate?

As Christine Emba explains:

‘… the Fearless Girl vision of female power is more than a little demeaning. Were there no adult women around to model leadership?….the Fearless Girl statue portrays the empowered woman as a child, reinforcing the idea of femaleness as cute and inoffensive – a child with potential, maybe, but not all the way there. Maybe that’s why passersby have found it so easy to disrespect the piece: Whether it’s the Wall Street bro photographed humping the statue just a few nights after if appeared or the patriotic wags who draped it in ‘Make America Great Again’ gear, a harmless little girl is still all too easy to disregard.’

As popular as ‘Fearless Girl’ has been, we think a real conversation would have been started if they had put a fully grown woman opposing ‘Charging Bull’.

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