One Small Step for LEGO, One Giant Leap for Women in Science?
Teaching children that their gender does and should affect the toys they play with, the subjects they choose at school, their intellectual abilities, and the careers they will end up in obviously has a significant effect on the children themselves. The (often subconscious) decision to teach this also affects the marketing of toys like LEGO and the behavior of adults toward children.
It is possible that the gender of people going into science as a career has an effect on the progress of science itself. Science is often conceptualized as an independent thing, unaffected by who undertakes the work, but is it possible that the women of the Research Institute set have real-life counterparts who can discover things male scientists cannot?
To explore this possibility, let’s look at a case study from the field of biology. In looking at the ways human anatomy is described, Emily Martin, an anthropologist, noticed a curious pattern in descriptions of eggs and sperm. She says that scientific texts “have an almost dogged insistence on casting female processes in a negative light” and that while eggs are described in feminine terms as “passive,” sperm are “invariably active.”21 This way of speaking perpetuates ideas about how women and men are, by reading gendered traits into biological processes that do not have any connection to the social world in which gender is created. Among other things, it mirrors the distinction between active/masculine and passive/feminine which we saw in many toys, even LEGO’s own themes. Lest we think that this is simply the way things are, more recent research has pointed in other directions: the egg could equally well be described as choosing which of the many available sperm will be opened and used.
It is not automatically the case that only female scientists can come up with new ways of looking at these issues, but it is the case that the majority of scientists in history and labs today are men, and that describing female biology with images—often negative images— usually applied to women is an ongoing and problematic tendency.
When we are looking at LEGO products, this pattern can be seen when women or girls are shown engaging in passive or overtly feminine behaviors (such as doing their hair or caring for animals and children), while men and boys are seen as active and given roles which reflect that (such as fire fighters and police officers).
In a sense, we impose roles on small yellow plastic figures in much the same way that scientists impose roles on the eggs and the sperm. As mentioned earlier, in a basic City theme set such as the Fire Starter Set (set #60106), the four minifigures consist of three coded masculine and one coded feminine—you can tell because she’s wearing lipstick and has eyelashes. It could be argued that the unmarked minifigure heads—where neither a beard nor makeup is present—could be read as either masculine or feminine. However, in practice these heads are read as masculine, and people assign the male pronoun to these figures unless something else, such as a skirt or a strongly feminine-coded role, suggests otherwise.