LEGO jumps into the science and technology gender-gap with new fan-supported set
Thursday, August 7, 2014, 4:03 PM - A new LEGO set is hitting the shelves right now that, while it's just a toy, may actually have a positive effect on the number of girls we see going into the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) - four areas of the workforce where women are traditionally underrepresented.
Taking an informal poll among some co-workers here at The Weather Network, there is a fairly diverse range of experiences, going along with the diversity we have here in the offices. Of the 26 members of our meteorology team - who are the talented scientists behind our daily forecasts - there are 10 women; so less than 40 per cent. When asked, one of the meteorologists said that she was given more 'traditional' toys when she was younger, but her parents eventually adapted to her more scientific interests over time. Another said that she'd always been more interested in action figures, comic books and the like, mainly stemming from her father's interests. In digital news, women outnumber the men, making up over 50 per cent of the team. One team member related how her parents encouraged her to "think outside the box," by adding her own personal touches to her favourite stories - even drawing pictures into the books to improve upon them. She credits this with likely having a large influence on her creativity, and her choice to become a writer.
The Weather Network is, by definition, a fairly science and technology oriented company, though. As a result, compared to the entire workforce in Canada, our numbers here are quiet high. As of 2009 (the latest census statistics on the subject), "just 22.3 per cent of professionals in [STEM] fields were women, up marginally from 19.5 per cent in 1987." In the United States, the latest stats (a little more up-to-date, from 2011) show numbers that are slightly higher - 26 per cent of STEM workers are women.
Understandably, the question "why?" comes to mind. While there's no validity to them, there are certain gender stereotypes in place, of course. These have been passed on from generation to generation, and often it's not even a definitive conscious choice for people to enforce them. It's just how they were brought up, so they pass it on to their kids. A big part of this is the toys that are chosen for children. When looking for 'boy toys' and 'girl toys', the stores tend to provide their own categories for each. Boy toys come up as action figures, radio-controlled toys, building sets and 'role-play' (mostly superhero) costumes. Girl toys are dolls and playsets, kitchen & household playsets, plush toys, and 'dress-up' (mostly princess) costumes.
Granted, there's nothing that says children or parents need to follow these suggestions, and quite frankly both would probably be happier if they ignored them altogether and just went with what the child actually likes. However, these 'categories' have existed for years, they've had an influence on our thinking as we've grown up, and they have an influence on children these days as well.
A continuation of the informal The Weather Network office poll showed that LEGO was big on nearly everyone's list of toys they played with, be they boy or girl. Playing with LEGO is great creative fun and that kind of play helps build better connections in our brain. Up until recently, LEGO has mainly been marketed to boys. There is the (perhaps short-sighted) LEGO Friends line, which was marketed specifically for girls. This really didn't help the situation, though, as it simply reinforced those same 'stereotypical roles' that we really should just shake off these days.
Recent inclusions to a line of mini-figure packs had several female figures, but they were vastly outnumbered by the male figures. That's not the real problem, as playing with male minifigures has little influence on girl's choices. Instead, it's the roles portrayed by the female figures that were included. A few figures had a certain amount of 'girl power', such as the Skater Girl and Snowboarder. However, only one really delved into 'traditional male roles' - the astronaut (sorry, Intergalactic Girl), who's space suite was a very vibrant, and very impractical pink colour. Meanwhile, some showed curious choices in labeling. A figure that could easily have been a doctor was instead labeled Nurse, while the Surgeon was a male figure. Another, the Zookeeper, could have been called a zoologist, biologist or even anthropologist. Although those could be implied from the job title (zookeepers do tend to need that kind of degree), there's really no reason to rely on the implication. Along with all of these examples, there were other female entries that point more towards those 'stereotypes' we're trying to move away from: Lady Liberty, Aerobics Instructor, Lifeguard, Pop Star and Bride, just to name a few.
Now, though, thanks to a fan-driven campaign, LEGO's new Research Institute is sending a much more positive message to girls about science, technology, engineering and math roles:
The hope is that, with a toy like this (and hopefully more to come!), it will provide a good example to girls, to say that being a scientist is a completely natural and normal (and needed!) thing for girls to want to be when they grow up. There are numerous examples of successful women scientists in the world - here at The Weather Network and in many other parts of society - that can be excellent role models as girls . However, children (regardless of gender) seeing this kind of representation in toys - at the time when play is helping to build and strengthen the connections in their brain - could go a long way towards eliminating the gap we see for women in STEM today.
The next stage, perhaps, is having more toys like this, and then we can deal with these same stereotypes in clothing - as there are several examples of the same problem there (here, here and here at least).
(Note, the popularity of the set has it currently labeled as "Sold Out", however it may come back in stock with time. They should be available in stores, and keep an eye on the site if you're interested, and if they are truly sold out, write them to ask for more!)