Representation in Plastic and Marketing. The Significance of the LEGO® Women Scientists

Rhiannon Grant and Ruth Wainman

Ellen Kooijman’s aim was simple. As a practicing geoscientist and Adult Fan of LEGO® (AFOL), she was keen to promote her own profession and to address the gender imbalance of scientists’ representation in LEGO sets. She wrote in a blog post:

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.1

In 2014, Kooijman’s ideas paid off after the LEGO Group announced the launch of the Research Institute set (set #21110)—the first LEGO set to feature women scientist figurines.

Here’s why this matters. Scientists, policy makers, and psychologists have identified the impact that toys have on the uptake of science and the perception of gender roles. Studies have shown how toys reinforce the gender binary, exposing the supposed differences in boys’ and girls’ interests and attributes.2 “Boys’ toys” as such have tended to be dominated by action and construction, whereas “girls’ toys” have focused on caring.3 These features of toys have certainly started to make their way into more mainstream debates. Among those leading the debates include renowned physicist Athene Donald, who has argued that girls’ toys are more likely to encourage passivity instead of the creative skills fostered by boys’ toys.4 Science Studies scholar Sherry Turkle has also

LEGO® and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick, First Edition. Edited by Roy T. Cook and Sondra Bacharach.

© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2017 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

written extensively about how objects, such as computers and toys, have influenced people’s paths into science.5 In particular, LEGO sets have been recognized as an important way of developing creativity and imagination during childhood. This makes sense in light of the versatility of LEGO and the ways people have shaped the toy to their own ends. Furthermore, the progress of science itself can be affected by who is doing the work. The alternative perspectives brought to science by women, who are often treated differently in society and hence see it differently, can change the way we understand the world.

On this basis, delving deeper into LEGO’s products and marketing provides an important perspective on the development of the Research Institute set and LEGO’s attempt to engage women in science. What does it mean for LEGO to finally represent the woman scientist? How exactly does the Research Institute achieve this, and does it succeed?

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