Why Barbie, Greta and You Should Invest in a Better World

In the U.S., there’s a growing movement for wiser, more sustainable investing that better reflects women’s values. I’m hoping Greta Gerwig—whose Barbie film surpassed the $1 billion mark—will join.

It’s time to talk about women’s economics with attitude. It’s time to laugh at what is often absurd and call out what is dangerous. By focusing on voices not typically part of mainstream man-to-man economic discourse, Women Unscrewing Screwnomics will bring you news of hopeful and practical changes and celebrate an economy waged as life—not as war.

Women have won enormous change since Carol Channing first sang “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” on Broadway in 1949, echoed by Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Back then, everyone knew a gentleman’s interest would fade as your sex appeal aged. But, hey, any diamonds given for your ornamentation remained yours—essentially as payment for services rendered, and rarely talked about until Betty Friedan and the ’60s. 

Given the centuries that women were kept isolated in the domestic world, where her education and presumed capability peaked at grocery receipt calculations, it perhaps shouldn’t surprise us that Barbie became the meme of U.S. women’s empowerment. She’s been a fashion model, ballerina, nurse, student teacher, astronaut and has even run for president. Overlooked were real women like Mary Gage, who opened a women’s-only stock exchange to trade in railroad stocks in 1880, or Hetty Green, called “The Witch of Wall Street” for her uncanny investing skills and frugality. 

At least we can celebrate the even earlier Madam C.J. Walker, daughter of slaves and entrepreneur who became our first female millionaire. She was honored with her own Barbie doll in 2022

We must not discount the huge economic changes since Barbie was created in 1959. Today, 73 percent of mothers with kids under 18 are working, and women are outnumbering and outperforming men at universities. One female economist, Janet Yellen, has even been appointed to head the Federal Reserve, becoming the first U.S. secretary of the treasury not to wear a tie.

A girl with her mother look at the window of the Zara store on Gran Vía street in Madrid with an advertising campaign for Barbie on July 22, 2023. (David Canales / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Yet surveys tell us that women’s insecurities about money remain. Woman’s Day magazine reported in 2018 that 52 percent of their respondents cited finances as their number one trigger for anxiety, which grew worse as they grew older. Then COVID-19 deepened women’s stress and worries. 

How do we connect that reality with a surprising fact that Janine Firpo, author of Activate Your Money pointed out in a recent interview with Ms.? Forty-five percent of millionaires today are female, and the number of wealthy women is growing at a faster rate than that of wealthy men. 

Still, should she sell her diamonds and put them into bonds or real estate? Even when she’s got money to invest, a woman’s lack of knowledge often means she still entrusts her money decisions to men. Many still leave finance up to their husbands, while 78 percent of investment fund managers today are men—or “He’s just Ken,” as they say in the Barbie film.

Firpo, an early innovator at Apple, who later worked at the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, points out another important trend. Women tend to reject the prevailing investment mentality of winner-takes-all.

She leads a growing movement that doesn’t want financial returns at any external cost. Women prefer a model that works better for people and the planet, not just shareholders. 

Even when she’s got money to invest, a woman still entrusts her money decisions to men.

Who inspired Firpo’ women-focused curiosity? In Activate Your Money, Melinda Gates was quoted: “When money flows into the hands of women who have the authority to use it, everything changes.”

On the page in front of that one, the author credited Kay Firpo, her strong and fierce mother, for speaking frankly about money and making her own road less rocky. 

Activate Your Money: Invest to Grow Your Wealth and Build a Better World by Janine Firpo.

Firpo grew up with parents who’d experienced the Great Depression and feared poverty. She said you needn’t be a millionaire to think about where your money is going. Even considering where you bank can make a difference. Is it a community bank that’s investing in small businesses and affordable housing? Is it a credit union that allows you to vote on community decisions? 

Making a difference with your savings and investments can help create a better world, Firpo wrote, and according to a 2017 study by Morgan Stanley, that is important to 84 percent of women and to 86 percent of millennials. Two years later, interest in sustainable investments was even greater—95 percent of millennials wanted that kind of investment, and 50 percent already had begun. 

How are sustainable investments defined? There are many terms in use, but all are consistent with a common concern about our collective well-being. There’s: SRI (socially responsible investing); ESG (environmental, social, and governance) criteria for evaluation; green investing; impact investing and values-aligned investing.

These terms focus a wider lens on results, beyond the important personal benefit of the investor. But that personal return is often better for such funds, particularly in times of downturns, wrote Firpo. For instance, research shows that higher ESG scores often mean lower risk and higher returns.

Firpo admits that taking charge of your investments requires time, attention and courage. She reports times that she had to disagree with a financial advisor, and another time when an advisor assured her that her stock fund was aligned with her values—and she discovered about 20 percent of her holdings were in oil and gas companies. She felt betrayed. 

Discovering what money means to you personally is part of the quest that she’s advising. She urges women to explore money stories, including their own. That doesn’t mean breaking an unspoken money taboo. She reports that she was never asked to reveal how much money she earned or was worth when participating in two different women’s investment clubs—both of which taught her a great deal. 

She said just start by paying closer attention. “Whether your money is parked in a savings account or sits in the stock market, what it is funding may shock you.” In other words, the devil may be in the fine print of a fund’s prospectus. 

She reports times that she had to disagree with a financial advisor, and another time when an advisor assured her that her stock fund was aligned with her values—and she discovered about 20 percent of her holdings were in oil and gas companies. She felt betrayed. 

Her book has a companion website, activateyourmoney.net to help with those details. Firpo also partnered with co-founder Ellen Remmer to create the nonprofit Invest for Better, a sister organization. Together Firpo and Remmer developed a curriculum called Investment Learning Circles, creating small groups of women who learn together, whether they’ve got a little savings set aside, or are a HNWI (high net worth individual). 

Learning about money with other women sounds like the most fun the subject could possibly be. All of this is at odds with Republicans, many of whom are funded by fossil fuel producers frightened of coming energy transitions to prevent global warming. They argue that ESG investing is dangerous “woke capitalism” that threatens our neoliberal libertarian liberty. You’ll lose money, they claim, despite evidence to the contrary.

So, naturally, they’ve been working at passing laws to prevent state pension funds and insurance companies from using ESG measures to evaluate risk and their likely returns. 


Such laws controlling investing decisions have already been passed in 15 states, including Texas, Wyoming, Iowa and North Dakota.

Only California is currently planning pro-ESG legislation for now, joining Maine, Maryland, Illinois and Colorado with laws favorable to ESG-weighted investing.

Companies say they’re worried about an American landscape of states with drastically different investment rules—and which appear to match up with states’ cruel laws on abortion bans. 

‘Whether your money is parked in a savings account or sits in the stock market, what it is funding may shock you.’ In other words, the devil may be in the fine print of a fund’s prospectus.

Is it worthwhile, taking time and paying attention to where your money is taking the nation, your community and family, and our planet? Can women and their money really make a better world with their investment decisions? No doubt, there are limits. Greenwashing makes third-party verification a good idea. That’s why it matters that Better Finance, an NGO organized as “the voice of European savers and investors,” has recently launched plans to replicate Invest for Better’s Learning Circle curriculum for women investors in France, Germany, Spain and Poland. 

Personally, I’m hoping Greta Gerwig, whose Barbie film has now surpassed the $1 billion mark, will join the ESG movement here in the U.S. for wiser, more sustainable investing that better reflects women’s values. As Barbie aspired to (though admittedly she wasn’t talking about ESG): “We fixed everything in the real world, so all women are happy and powerful.”

Plus, there’s even a pink Barbie Deluxe Cash Register that makes cute ca-ching sounds and a touchscreen calculator that Amazon claims really works. 

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