You may have noticed my habit of blogging occasionally about how gendered toys have the ability to affect children. Whether the topic is limiting the skills sets girls develop while playing or failing to introduce STEM as a career option because those are “boy’s” toys, it’s always been an interesting discussion, to say the least.
Lego made headlines recently when they announce a new “Research Institute set,” which will feature three female scientist figures, including an astronomer with telescope, paleontologist with a dinosaur skeleton and a chemist with lab equipment.
The series came about via the Lego Ideas site, which is designed to allow regular people to submit potential ideas for Legos to the company. Ellen Kooijman, a geochemist from Stockholm, submitted the idea after realizing that Lego lacked women working in STEM settings. Luckily, Kooijman is both a scientist and a Lego fan, so she decided to stay close to home with her idea.
"As a female scientist I had noticed two things about the available LEGO sets: a skewed male/female minifigure ratio and a rather stereotypical representation of the available female figures. It seemed logical that I would suggest a small set of female minifigures in interesting professions to make our LEGO city communities more diverse," she wrote on her blog. After getting 10,000 votes--clearly it's a popular idea--Lego announced that manufacture of the set, which will be released in August.
She’s not the first one to criticize. Even seven-year-old Charlotte Benjamin realized there was something wrong with only have pink Legos to play with. In a letter to Lego, Benjamin wrote:
“Dear Lego Company,
My name is Charlotte. I am 7 years old and I love legos but I don’t like that there are more lego boy people and barely any lego girls. Today I went to a store and saw legos in two sections. The pink girls and blue boys. All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach and shop, and they had no jobs but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs even swam with sharks. I want you to make more lego girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun. Ok!?!
There you have it folks. From the mouths of babes. This company just got schooled by a 7-year-old who simply wants to take her female legos (you know, the one she identifies with) on an adventure.
The general thought is that girls tend to be more invested in the storyline of a game. They’re into the details, so why not give them a range full of Legos to play with? Legos that they can use on “adventures” and to learn and explore. There are female Lego characters, but these are the first of their kind as far as STEM goes.
This point of this is not that playing with a toy that is stereotypically feminine is inherently bad—it’s not—but rather because it limits the scope of options for a young girl. I’m not going to cast aspirations on all “girl” toys. In fact, I spent many an hour playing with Polly Pocket and Barbie and—as far as I can tell—it didn’t hugely affect my life. I also played with blocks and HotWheels. However, I had the good fortune of being surrounded by great role models, including my grandmother who was quite ahead of her time as far as education and working full-time and my own mother who worked hard so she was able to run her own business. I had a lot of people saying, “be whatever you want to be.”
I have limited interest (okay, fine, limited skills) in math and science, so obviously a STEM career was not in my future, but what if I had lacked the strong personalities encouraging me to be whatever I wanted to be? Would I have been swayed into a more ladylike field simply because of my gender rather than my own preference? If toys fail to expose kids (boys and girls) to the options available to them, do we run the risk of missing out on important opportunities and eventual careers?
Yes, they can play with the boy Legos and use them to go on adventures, but wouldn't it be better if they had access to female toys outside of Barbie and Skipper? I've never been a big fan of Lego, but even I have to admit that the dinosaur is awesome. Maybe these sets will prompt girls to ask more questions about science, and at the very least it will expose them to a variety of career options.
I’m not saying that a female scientist Lego is going to change the course of history, but it might change the course of one girl’s life. As a society, we need to be encouraging children to explore their full options. Boys have a bit of an advantage in historically male fields, but what about offering a male nurse or a stay-at-home dad? The point is if we limit the toys, we limit the possibilities.