Spiderman vs Elsa (and perspectives on gender)

Ladies, have you ever wondered about the life lessons boys got from their childhood idols like Spiderman, which many of us missed out on growing up? Gents, how many of you still channel your inner superhero during challenging times at home or work?

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" Are women sitting around waiting for their next break, taking fewer risks, conforming to being demure?"
Rhiannon Richardson & Mue Bentley FisherChair of ANZ Banking on Women – Fiji & Communications Manager, ANZ Pacific

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Illustration: Chris Kelly. Corporate caricatures & illustrations.


As mothers, we recently observed our sons and daughters gravitating towards separate kinds of cartoon and movie 'idols', much like we did at their age.

Granted the recent emergence of more empowered and headstrong female heroines (think Disney's Elsa conquering her fears and finding herself with a song - causing earworms for frustrated parents around the world) we are still faced with the stereotypical damsel in distress in too much popular media.

These are formative years for our children and we couldn't help but reflect on the messages being naturally disseminated via popular media. Take that quintessential superhero Spiderman:

  • Spiderman teaches boys to accept that with great power comes great responsibility. Girls learn from the likes of Barbie and Disney princesses that with great looks comes great opportunity!
  • Spiderman teaches boys that with personal sacrifice comes great (career/personal) success - and you get the girl (and the job?) in the end through sheer grit and persistence. Girls learn to be demure and if you sit and wait patiently, Prince Charming will come for you in the end (Disney princesses can take credit for that one).

These are broad statements and obviously not true for all girls and boys but we wondered whether there were any actions we could take for our daughters and sons that would set them in better stead in their lives and careers, avoiding the limiting power of these messages.


Senior leaders share their thoughts on how we teach gender roles and responsibilities to children.

“The strongest lesson from Spiderman for me is to use one's talents for the benefit of others. And this should be regardless of gender.

The greatest obstacle for young girls and women in the Pacific is the traditional/cultural attitudes towards the role of girls and woman. This is also true in many other parts of the world. Girls and women are expected to be at home and look after their children, their husbands and/or their parents as well as helping out in the church, village etc. Girls and woman are expected to stay home from school to look after a sick parent, but there is not the same expectation of boys.

In an ideal world, success will be achieved when boys and girls (women and men) have equal representation in all of society's institutions - judiciary, parliament, civil service - and rewards are similar for similar roles. Boys and men can help this by not expecting girls and women to be subservient to them."

Dr Colin Tukuitonga, Director General, Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC)

“I have to confess I was never a fan of Spiderman or comics for that matter. But coming from a large family with literally no TV access, we became very good at playing games outdoors.

Our favourite was Cowboys vs the Military, USA mid-west style. However the girls were relegated to the role of nurses only! It literally took a military coup one day for all the girls to overthrow a 'fort' to show the boys we could play as strategically and hard as them. So we came out of the medical tent and onto the battlefield!

“We (women) don't help ourselves a lot. You have to ask for assistance, something that does not come naturally. You also have to learn to be comfortable with politics and power. My advice is for everyone to have mentors and confidants that are both men and women. Seek out senior and expert women in your organisation – every one of those women is a potential source of advice and mentor."

Susan Hodgkinson, ANZ Head of Group Credit Assurance

“I didn't really follow superheroes closely when I was growing up, but what does strike me about their message is that there's so much more to these individuals than meets the eye.

Hidden beneath their often mundane and ordinary lives, resides superhuman strength and abilities, as well as leadership abilities to overcome any challenge. I think this is one of the most important lessons that we can learn from these childhood idols.

Much like Peter Parker, are we – men and women alike – suppressing hidden abilities and values to fit in to accepted norms?

In an increasingly complex environment we have a great responsibility to be the change we want to see, whether it be in our day to day lives, or for the longer term future of the communities where we live and work."

Mark Baker, CEO ANZ PNG

“I love the quote from Spiderman 'with great power comes great responsibility'. To me, this speaks to leadership and the importance of being cognoscente that our actions pave the way into what's considered acceptable behaviour by those we lead.

Girls (and boys) have the power to dictate how they are treated and they need to own that power and responsibility. Girls need to take more ownership over their life-decisions and drive the outcomes that they desire. But we as a society need to get used to that change in stereotypical behavior.

I love the movement we're seeing in the US where Barbie toy maker, Mattel, is partnering with DC Comics to create DC Super Hero Girls, transforming the profile of super heroes. Similarly, a new start-up toy-maker Goldie Blox is creating a line of female toy dolls that are builders, scientists, and explorers. My advice to girls (and boys) is set your sights higher than you think you'll ever be able to achieve and work hard towards that goal."

Tammy Medard, ANZ CEO Lao


Let's start with the story of Spiderman.

Spiderman is probably the most disadvantaged of the superheroes. Behind his secret identity, Peter Parker is an orphan raised by his aunt, struggling with awkwardness, insecurity, rejection and loneliness as a teenager.

Enter the radioactive spider – that spider represents fate and opportunity for the sake of this article – bringing with its venom super strength, agility and spider-webbing ability to rival any living arachnid on this side of the universe (that's some pretty amazing opportunity!).

Spiderman's stories went on to underpin lessons of persistence (did we mention that he got the girl in the end?), grit and determination (he was a superhero, after all).

And there we were as girls, brushing our dolls' hair. Hmmm… did we perhaps gain better grooming habits? Anyway, moving on…

Let's connect this story to careers. Are women sitting around waiting for their next break, taking fewer risks, conforming to being demure?

Ladies, did our childhood media idols really impact how we now act? And gents, we know you're still channelling your favourite superhero even as you sit and read this article. Batman? Superman? Thor?

We asked a few senior leaders their views on superheroes.

In these views are some important underlying themes:

  • Men and boys have a very important role to play in levelling the playing field. The great responsibility here is in helping to change the status quo for gender parity – advocate, teach and live the change.
  • Equally, women and girls have a very important role to play in levelling the playing field. The great responsibility here is around backing ourselves, taking charge, dreaming big, and never giving up.

Today we're heading back to our families after work with our newly reorganised insights. We might pick up a comic book or two on our way there or maybe the latest Disney cartoon on DVD.

What should we have for dinner? Should we take our laptops home to get some work done later?

So many choices! So much responsibility! We ask ourselves: “What would Spiderman do?"

Rhiannon Richardson is ANZ's Head of Operational Risk Pacific, CRO Solomon Islands and Chair of the ANZ Forward Network, an ANZ employee-led network working to progress gender balance across the Group.

Mue Bentley Fisher is ANZ Communications Manager Pacific & Fiji, and Chair of ANZ Banking on Women – Fiji, an employee-led network with a mandate to help ANZ women progress in the workplace.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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