“Explore the World and Beyond!”

After gaining support from fellow LEGO ideas members (an online community which shares ideas for LEGO sets), Kooijman created a design that could represent a Research Institute, featuring a paleontologist, an astronomer, and a chemist. According to the packaging, there is a chance to “explore the world and beyond!” This is the motto of the women scientists as they each set out to make their own discoveries in the Research Institute. The astronomer gets “to discover new stars and planets with her telescope” while the paleontologist studies “the origin of the dinosaurs” and the chemist undertakes “experiments in the laboratory.”6 The message of the set is clear: “girls can become anything they want.”7 The accompanying booklet provides further background information about the three occupations and a photograph of a real scientist—Ellen Kooijman—in her laboratory at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.

The set relies on role play, reminding us that the three women scientists have their own story to tell. The interchangeable heads providing alternating facial expressions of the scientists also help to facilitate a narrative form of play. On the official LEGO web store, potential customers are reminded that the sets provide a chance to learn that science can also be an occupation for women: “There’s a whole world of exciting professions out there to explore—build and role play them to see if they suit you!”8 The sets must have struck a chord with the public as they sold out in a matter of days.

There is something, then, that is both typical and atypical about the representation of women scientists in the LEGO Research Institute. By launching a set featuring women scientists, LEGO is raising the profile of women in an area where they remain outnumbered. According to the 2012 World Development Report, men outnumber women in science in two-thirds of the world’s countries.9 On closer inspection, though, the women of the LEGO Research Institute are wearing lipstick while some even come replete with drawn-on curves. Wearing makeup in a laboratory—surely not! This did not escape the attention of Kooijman who wrote a blog post reviewing the Research Institute and strongly discouraging the wearing of makeup in labs because of the potential contamination of samples. The sets, however, have also inspired their own Twitter feed set up by archaeologist Dr. Donna Yates from the University of Glasgow—@LegoAcademics— which provides a tongue-in-cheek look at the experiences of being an academic and a woman.

As part of the minifigure range as a whole, women in both scientific and technical occupations are still seldom featured. Instead, stereotypical roles and characterizations of women loom large with the inclusion of figurines such as the Bavarian Pretzel Girl, the Diner Waitress, and the Cheerleader. The gender-differentiated LEGO sets have also served to reinforce such divisions between the sexes. LEGO Friends, introduced in 2012, is just one of the latest themes LEGO has aimed at girls over the years (see also the Homemaker, Paradisa, Scala, and Belville themes).10 These have mostly been reliant on channeling feminine occupations and interests through settings including the hair salon, the beauty shop, and the shopping mall. The combination of aesthetic appeal and a message of friendship between named characters help to mark these sets as feminine or girls’ toys.

LEGO did not originally set out to be a toy that was mostly reliant on role play. From its wooden beginnings in 1932, LEGO has primarily been a construction toy. During the 1990s, the LEGO brand shifted from a toy about construction play to one based on narrative and role play, although this strategy was subsequently overturned to achieve a balance between the classic lines and the more fad-driven products.11 More recently, users of LEGO (mostly adults) have started to become an increasingly important part of the LEGO marketing strategy with the collaboratively driven development of the robotics kits—Mindstorms®.12 In this context, the Research Institute can be seen as part of a wider strategy to turn its users into both producers and consumers to dictate the future direction of LEGO.

Although the Research Institute alerts us to the fact that science can be a woman’s occupation, its focus on role play may disguise a more problematic issue about how toys such as LEGO attempt to draw girls into the world of science. Where is the creativity in the Research Institute that scientists and policy makers have complained is absent in girls’ toys? The LEGO Group argues that girls and boys simply play differently. LEGO’s own research shows that boys tend to build in a more linear fashion by replicating what is inside the box whereas girls prefer a more personal approach, to create their own story and to imagine themselves living inside the things they build.13 Creativity for girls thus derives from the use of their imagination more than it does for boys.

A glance back at older LEGO advertising seems to suggest that the company could also look beyond gendered ideas about its users. Take, for example, the 1981 advertisement of the girl, dressed in jeans and sneakers and holding up her own LEGO model, which seems to be less dictated by gender stereotypes than the LEGO sets of today. The message—“What it is is beautiful”—was simple and drew our attention both to the creation the girl designed and the self-fulfillment she gained from playing with LEGO. In comparison, the Research Institute seems to have taken a backward turn, since it is mostly reliant on the narrative it can create by allowing girls to imagine themselves as one of the scientists that the LEGO women represent. In order to understand this, we need to look more deeply into the socialization process itself and how it has shaped ideas about science among boys and girls.

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