SOCIETY

Kids Put Lego on Notice: Stop Neglecting Little Girls

SOCIETY
Jun 17, 2014 at 8:07 AM ET

Life can get pretty boring for ladies in Lego land. Sure you can bake cupcakes, do your hair or hit up your local juice bar—but you don’t get to go to space, explore the Arctic or do anything else adventurous. That kind of fun is reserved for the boys.

Despite its toy-design genius, Lego has never been great at minding the gender gap. The company has blatantly marketed the vast majority of its products to boys for decades, leaving girls with a few red-lipped minifigures and buildings made of pink and purple bricks.

“There are technically no girls in Lego world,” one fifth-grader at Shorewood Hills Elementary in Madison, Wisconsin, recently said in a letter to the company. “If there is a Lego girl, she is either covered in makeup or a damsel in distress. Are you kidding me?”

In hopes of leveling the plastic brick playing field, fourth- and fifth-graders at Shorewood Hills analyzed 600 Lego sets in order to gather data on the gender and cultural stereotypes promoted by the company. According to their findings, 75 percent of the minifigures are boys, while only 12 percent are girls. And only 9 percent of Lego City sets (which are modeled after everyday life—think fire stations, hospitals, Coast Guard, etc.) are marketed toward the fairer sex. The exceptions were Lego’s Princesses and Friends collections, the later of which ignited a nationwide debate when the company first unveiled it in 2012. The Barbie-fied line was the scourge of feminists, tomboys and parents everywhere, who accused Lego of being gender-biased and selling out girls with tired clichés.

Led by their teacher, Michelle Hatchell, the Shorewood Hills students found that the iconic toy company has a cultural diversity issue as well, with 94.3 percent of the minifigures representing Europeans, and only tiny percentages representing Asians, Africans and Native Americans. “If I look around my school, we are not yellow!” wrote one student in a letter to Lego CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. “We are a wide assortment of different colors and genders.”

The students also recreated a famous 1981 Lego advertisement, which features a redheaded girl proudly showing off a Lego creation of her own. Ironically, the decades-old campaign is exactly the kind of marketing that the company should be doing more of today, depicting both girls and boys of all races with the universally beloved, gender-neutral toys.

“It’s really been a deep learning experience for the kids,” Hatchell says of the project. “They learned how to be activists.”

After collecting the data, each of Hatchell’s students communicated their concerns to Lego with handwritten letters. And to their surprise, they actually received a response. “It’s true we currently have more male than female minifigures in our assortment,” Lego wrote back. “We completely agree that we need to be careful about the roles our female figures play—we need to make sure they’re part of the action and have exciting adventures, and aren’t just waiting to be rescued.”

They also acknowledged the need for more ethnically authentic figures that go beyond the standard yellow skin tone. “After all,” the response reads, “we want to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow: that means both boys and girls, everywhere in the world!”

It appears that Lego is starting to do more than just acknowledge the criticism. The company announced just two weeks ago that it would be releasing its first female scientists minifigure set, which features a chemist, an astronomer and a paleontologist. The idea was proposed by Ellen Kooijman, a Swedish geochemist who won the Lego ideas contest. The all-female collection will hit shelves in early August, and will hopefully be the first of many stereotype-defying minifigures.

Who knows, maybe they’ll start making pink-clad cupcake bakers for boys. As one Shorewood Hill student wrote in his letter to Lego, “I think you should stop assuming that boys like blowing stuff up and girls like pink. I’m a boy, and personally, I like pink.”