Cultural battles in the lego playground

A Lego advert from 1981 – when there was less gender stereotyping than there is today. Credit: Lego

There has been quite a flurry of excitement in the last week about the planned release of a new series of Lego figures that will include three female scientists: a palaeontologist, an astronomer and a chemist. This is progress, but, as Helen Czerski said in a Guardian article “Even if, in 2014, we should be miles beyond that sort of progress”. She goes on to point out that all is not so encouraging: in the new set of figures there are some other female figures that are perhaps more in accord with stereotypical girls’ careers: a ‘diner waitress’ and a ‘Bavarian Lady’ with a large pretzel whom Helen describes as Pretzel Lady. She finds it disappointing that such less aspirational characters persist.

I can see her point, but on the other hand there are a lot of working waitresses out there and there is already a male waiter figure on the market. You could therefore argue the waitress is just redressing the gender balance rather than assume this is a serious a failing. (In the other case I don’t understand why Bavaria gets this special treatment, but the association with a pretzel is presumably meant to convey a street-seller to tourists: low-level service industry work again.) I personally would like to put a more positive spin on this new series, however, and celebrate not only the special case of the three female scientists but the introduction of another new character. This is a welder minifigure, so wrapped up in protective clothing that the character can undoubtedly be regarded as unisex. For this we should be grateful. Three female scientists and a unisex welder are not bad for inculcating the idea of future STEM careers in young children’s minds! I omit the new Lady Robot from my discussion because I have no idea what that character is meant to convey; it has, unfortunately, got shades of pink in its uniform and perhaps is intended to be a domestic help, although Helen suggests, I’m not sure on what basis, that it is designed mainly to party.

When I was first introduced to Lego – simply red and white bricks when I was a child – I don’t believe there were any figures, but the first I remember seeing in the kits I bought for my own children were essentially pretty unisex. There was no pink and, although the pirate possibly had a moustache, I never spotted my children assigning any particular gender to the models. All well and good. The pinkification of toys designed for girls has got more and more acute, with Lego specifically introducing a cutely pink girls’ range about three years back, something I have complained about before. Pink is undoubtedly prevalent these days as shorthand for ‘girlish, boys keep away’.

Why, as physicists, should we care about any of this? Because, as the IOP announces its new Opening Doors project with the support of the Department for Education and as DfE itself pushes the Yourlife project both aimed at encouraging girls to stick with physics (and maths), issues over stereotyping persist in our schools and society in general discouraging girls from taking physics beyond GCSE or aspiring to physics/engineering qualifications and careers. That is why the IOP has, over many years, put so much effort into its work with and for girls in schools and why the DfE is investing in both projects. The drop out of girls from physics, as all the studies show, isn’t about ability. It is about self-belief and self-interest. If girls are led to believe their career aspirations should be limited to waitressing and (as in the earlier series of figures) hanging around in pink cafes and worrying about their hair and manicures, then they are hardly going to find it easy to raise their sights to more interesting opportunities where physics gets a look-in.

Furthermore, although the DfE work is concentrating on the 14–16 year age group, this is almost certainly too late. Evidence suggests many children have formed their basic ideas about careers around the time they start at secondary school. Early years are formative, and the messages kids receive from parents and teachers alike at this time will be crucial in forming ideas about what sorts of careers are appropriate. If the subliminal messages girls receive from playing with toys limits their dreams then at 16 they will walk away from these stereotypically non-standard goals once that’s possible post-GCSE.

Readers of Physics Focus won’t need to be told that physics is exciting, but schoolgirls somehow receive the message from the world around them that not all careers are equally appropriate for them. Indeed boys receive similarly gendered messages: why is the Lego Veterinary Surgery part of the girls’ line and designed in that fetching shade of pink again? With non-verbal cues like that it is perhaps not surprising that vet schools are populated largely by girls, at least at undergraduate level. The statistics are as badly out of balance in these courses as for university courses in physics, simply the other way round. It may seem strange to see toys as a cultural battle ground, but that does seem to be what they have become, driven by companies who wish to maximise their profits by steering parents to buy different versions for their sons and daughters almost regardless of what the children themselves might opt for.

It is perhaps disappointing that it took a proposal from the public, plus 10,000+ signatures to get Lego to make the decision to create this set of female scientists, but it worked. The interest shown in the media (see this account from MIT astronomer Maia Weinstock for a US take on things) may encourage them to think more seriously in the future about what will ‘sell’ and not restrict themselves to an out-of-date gendered take on the world. It’s hardly a giant leap for mankind, but then we haven’t got a female Lego astronaut yet.


Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she has become heavily involved with policy issues, ranging from chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee to chairing the Scientific Advisory Council of DCMS.She served on University Council (2009-14) and was the University’s Gender Equality Champion (2010-14). She is currently a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC and a former Trustee of the Science Museum. As well as various prizes from the IOP and Royal Society, she won the 2009 L'Oreal/Unesco Laureate for Europe award.

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