International Women’s Day: Falling out of love with Lego

Back in 1994 two siblings, aged six and eight, found themselves at home on a rainy Saturday with nothing to do. So, they decided to turn the living room floor into the ultimate Lego city. There was a fire and police station (complete with jail and dog training centre), there were streets of houses, a castle, roads, race track and even a pirate ship. A day with no plans turned into a day full of imagination, storytelling and collaboration.

Two siblings, a boy and a girl. Lego equalised them.

Jump forward to 2012, the no longer little girl was incredibly sad to see that the much-loved brand had decided that, in order to reach more girls, to launch Lego Friends; with beauty salon, bakery, pet store and Stephanie’s bedroom all in glorious pink.

It is of course not specific to just Lego, take a stroll around Hamley’s or digitally shop for toys and you will see entire floors/product lists defined by gender, creating pink and blue barriers to every child that walks in. Kinder Eggs have pink wrappers for girls and blue wrappers for boys. Just why? What child is ever going to turn down chocolate because it has a pink or blue wrapper?

There has been a lot of talk about gender bias upbringing, including toys, and the impact they can have on a child and their future. A report by the Careers and Enterprise Company, ‘Closing the Gender Gap’, has found that “gendered stereotypes” still determine the occupational choices of young women. More recent studies are proving that there is very little difference between boys and girls under the age of 6, so why on earth would manufacturers continue to force us down two distinct blue and pink paths?

Going back to Lego, Dr Stephanie Reich from the University of California’s School of Education led a study into the brands products and found that ‘when we look at these different sets, we find boys being encouraged to think of themselves as experts who have a high level of education. They are professionals who can face danger, they are architects, explorers and even racing car drivers.

Girls, if they even have a job, are bakers and fashion designers or working to help other people. They are practising at skills and trying very hard, but they are not experts like the boys.’

Lego argue that their sets are played with by both boys and girls and are not gender targeted, but instructions on the Lego Friends packets include ‘help the girls cook’, ‘bake and create a garden party’ and ‘wash the dishes before setting up the sunbed’. No Lego City sets involve domestic work, says the study, and while a female pilot ‘can even fly all by herself’, a male pilot is ‘ready for fast-paced stunts’. Please. Who are the people buying this rubbish and do we, as people hoping for a better future without such disparity between the sexes, need to protest with our wallets?

There are some promising signs in retail – John Lewis are one of the first retailers in the UK to remove gender from their toys and clothing sections as have Target in the US. Ikea’s selection of cuddly toys are appealing to all children (and admittedly a lot of adults), and companies like littleBits are creating technology kits that empower kids to invent anything with gender neutrality at its heart

The bigger point is it won’t be long before gender definitions of boys and girls are as obsolete as the people that think a ‘girls range’ of Lego is a good idea. Gender binary Lego anyone?

I expect more brands to be doing better and I’m growing impatient. So, come on Lego, go back to being the disrupters, leaders and innovators you once were because, from where I am sitting, you are starting to look dated.