Girls’ Toys, Boys’ Toys: The Gendered Bias

Having looked at the marketing LEGO produces and the depictions of women and scientists in LEGO sets, it might be tempting to say “so what?” You might follow this up with the thought that LEGO, as a sensible company, is merely being realistic in marketing different toys to girls and boys—everyone knows that boys and girls play differently. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Yes, girls and boys do play differently. But is this because they are innately different, or is it because they are being taught, from birth if not before, that they ought to be different? Let’s look at the evidence for the latter, along with some ideas about how LEGO toys might be involved in that process.

Sociologists have looked at every stage of children’s development, and found that parents treat babies differently as soon as the sex of the child is known. For example, they describe girls as “sweet” and “pretty” and boys as “athletic” and “tough” from birth.14 Children learn from this treatment how they ought to be, and are actually shaped to be that way: girls play with more toys that teach caring and literacy, while boys play with more toys that emphasize engineering and fighting.15 Toys are also frequently color-coded, with girls’ toys especially likely to feature shades of pink and pastel colors. When LEGO produces materials for children that assume girls are more interested in characters, stories, and emotions, and boys are more interested in building, cars, and explosions, they are both playing into a dominant cultural narrative that tells children how they should be, and helping to create a world in which children are shaped to fulfil those expectations. One of these key expectations is that boys are more interested in, and better at, science.

Overall, girls are much less likely to study STEM subjects at school or to pursue careers involving science or mathematics. This has changed little over several decades, and studies on the subject reveal that it is partially shaped by children’s out-of-school experiences. Girls who feel good about science report that this is partly because they are engaged with science outside school—“doing science at home, reading about science, or watching science-related television shows.”16 Gendered differences persist among children about the image of the scientist. For example, in the “draw-a-scientist-test” only girls drew women scientists.17 The Research Institute set could help to counteract this. For girls it provides the possibility that science too can be part of their experience, and challenges the perception that science is a male subject.

That said, the Research Institute set continues to support stereotypical ideas of girls’ play in other ways. Apart from building the equipment and figures, no engineering or scientific skills are embedded in playing with the set, and the accompanying marketing focuses on stories about these three women scientists and their research. Other sets within the wider LEGO range are coded differently, such as the City theme, which is framed with an emphasis on masculine roles. LEGO attempts to include women in these sets. For example, the Swamp Police Station (set #60069) comes with six minifigures, four police officers and two criminals. One police officer and one criminal are feminine in the usual LEGO style, that is, wearing makeup; one police officer and the other criminal are bearded; two police officers are unmarked and likely to be read as masculine because our society offers that as the default option.

Although we applaud this attempt, we do not think that this overcomes the general masculine coding of the sets involved. Unlike the Research Institute, there is no all-women police station, and in the Spaceport set, the astronauts are unmarked and therefore most likely to be read as men. Most of the City theme has mainly masculine minifigures and includes models with an engineering emphasis—the City theme focuses on modes of transport (rockets, fire engines, trains, police cars, and so on) in particular. Boys are thus directed toward these toys, and girls away from them, giving boys a practical advantage in science and engineering as well as a positive attitude toward it.

All of these factors—depictions, experiences, skills developed in play—are part of what gender studies scholars have called the social construction of gender. Parents, teachers, and—after a certain age— children themselves all use toys, clothing, and roles to create a child’s gender, one of many things that will affect the child’s way of being in the world. These others things will include class (buying LEGO sets requires significant money); race and ethnicity (LEGO’s mainly (but not always) yellow minifigures do not succeed in excluding this as a factor, especially from their advertising18); and some disabilities (LEGO is accessible to many, but not all, children). Class, race, ethnicity, and disability combine with gender and other aspects of a child’s life and social position to create a complex web that shapes their experiences. For example, the tendency of children’s books to depict scientists as white men creates a stereotype that excludes some children from imagining themselves in a science-related occupation.19 Within the complex web of identities, a child’s assigned gender (whether they are being raised as a boy or a girl, usually based on observation of the genitals at birth but sometimes on chromosomes) is taught through language and action—including play.

One of the things children in our culture are taught as part of their gendered socialization is to regard school subjects or academic disciplines as gendered. Language-focused skills such as reading and writing are gendered feminine and thought of as girls’ subjects, whereas science and physical education are considered masculine and treated as boys’ subjects. Adults both expect to see this pattern and perpetuate it, often unconsciously, by the ways they talk to children and the messages they send when children play with the “wrong” toys. Children of both sexes might play with LEGO sets (although in a study of favorite toys among three to five-year-olds, LEGO appears on the boys’ list and not the girls’).20 However, girls are encouraged by their caregivers as well as by LEGO’s marketing to take an interest in stories and characters.

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