Growing up, gender neutral clothes and toys in shops wouldn’t have worked for me.
I wanted the Barbie so hard.
Yep, all that candy pink and big hair and an unlikely bust and waistline was mesmerising. All my friends had Barbies, and while there was a Tonka bulldozer and truck that was quite cool, my only thought about that was, ‘what if I play with it and get messy?’
Fast forward until now, and all those ideas around how childhood stereotypes shape our adult lives are endlessly fascinating to me. (And yes, I recognise that in 2020 Barbie is something of a feminist icon, with her range of careers and insistence on staying single in her own fabulous place at the age of 61. )
So I loved speaking to Sophie Deen, a lawyer turned award winner leader in the field of coding for young people, for new #Perspectives podcast ‘Agent of change.’
At 36, the amazing Sophie is the founder of UK-based kids’ media company Bright Little Labs, which makes gender-neutral cartoons, books, games and interactive experiences for the over threes.
The company's mission? To prepare kids for the future with original content that shows how to master computer science, spot fake news—and the power of a good emoji!
“It’s about giving kids 21st century skills and showing them inspiring role models,” says Sophie, whose best-known creation is Agent Asha, an 11-year-old spy of British Indian heritage who is expert in coding and STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths.)
“It’s such a big part of our society. It's our medicine, it's technology, it's engineering. It's the world that we live in.”
This extraordinary woman has realised and is working to overturn the under-representation of female protagonists and anybody of any diverse characteristics as protagonists in children's books.
When we spoke, Sophie—listed in Computer Weekly's shortlists of Top 50 Most Influential Women in Tech in 2018 and 2019—was in Lisbon, Portugal, writing Asha's latest adventure.
She agrees "wholeheartedly" that the gender stereotypes we're exposed to as kids impact how we expect the world to be when we get older.
“And actually storytelling is meant for that. It's meant for humans to be able to spread a message far and wide, it's easier than telling people facts," she says.
"So you use stories to disseminate your values or your cultures, or to inspire people to do something. And if we're always saying … if you're white, you're more visible, if you're male, then you are more powerful. Your voice is more important.
"You know, we all internalise those stories and it shapes what we think we can become and what we think other people are going to become.”
—Boys are “massively” stereotyped in stories that tell them that “to be strong, you can't have emotions, you can't show emotions, and that's just as damaging," says Sophie.
"I personally don't think it's simplistic to think that those stories are blueprints for how we see the world when we grow up.”
She's faced pressure since first creating the Asha character over the fact that the star of the series is a girl —studies show little boys generally prefer boy heroes—and calls it "one of the most frustrating things that happened on my journey so far.”
Early on, publishers said, "‘Oh, so it's a book for girls.’ If it has a girl on the front cover, it's a book for girls. Whereas if it's a boy, it's a book for everybody and it just seems genuinely stupid. If you keep telling people that that's the case ... it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Sophie's had an impressive career trajectory since giving up the law to go into coding. She worked alongside Code Club, Google and the UK Department of Education to teach teachers how to introduce the computing curriculum into primary schools in England.
As a former lawyer, techie and children’s play therapist, she is passionate about creative education and positive role models for kids. Computer science, she told me on 'Agent of change' is “sort of like logic and instruction, giving and sequencing and problem solving.”
After she helped introduce computer science into schools, Sophie noticed kids would learn at school, but at home, when they wanted their mum and dad to support them with STEM, “parents felt completely alienated. Like, I can't even—like, I hate my printer. That was exacerbating a social divide and a digital divide. "
Sophie decided it would be great to tackle that with "something mainstream and inclusive", like a story or a cartoon. So, inspired by what she was seeing in terms of the power that mastery of coding and STEM subjects gave people, Sophie started Bright Little Labs.
The company has users in over 100 countries and raised Series A investment with WarnerMedia in 2018, and Bright Little Labs is working with the media giant to turn Agent Asha's adventures into a major cartoon.
Because kids write to Bright Little Labs with suggestions and ideas, “we get to learn about them directly," says Sophie. "In traditional media companies, when you've got a television, it's a much more of a passive relationship. You don't really know your kids.”
She has the data and insights to “inform our content that we can make better content for kids.”
I loved this conversation with agent of change Sophie about how our kids and grandkids learn, and what they need to know to thrive and survive in the world of the future.