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Explained: Why Lego’s decision to remove gender bias from children’s toys is significant

Many feminists, educators and parents have objected that Lego’s toys entered into the sexist domain of pinkification and promoted some of the worst conservative gender stereotypes.

Written by Deeptesh Sen , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
October 12, 2021 9:37:14 am
Visitors at the Lego booth during Comic-Con International in San Diego, July 21, 2017.(Donald Miralle/The New York Times, File)

Toy manufacturer Lego has announced that it will work to remove gender bias from its products and ensure that children’s creative ambitions are not limited by stereotypes.

The announcement from Lego came after a survey found how gender biases were being reinforced through the creative play of children. Following the study, the Danish toy manufacturer stated that it was committed to making its products more inclusive.

The announcement assumes significance because Lego has been in the past accused of promoting stereotypical depictions of femininity through its line of products.

What are the key findings of the survey?

The research, which was commissioned by the Lego Group and carried out by the Geena Davis Institute, surveyed nearly 7,000 parents and children aged 6-14 years old in China, Czech Republic, Japan, Poland, Russia, UK and USA.

One of the key findings of the study was that “girls are ready for the world but society isn’t quite ready to support their growth through play”.

The findings of the survey, as revealed by Lego, states: “Girls feel less restrained by and are less supportive of typical gender biases than boys when it comes to creative play (74% of boys vs. 62% of girls believe that some activities are just meant for girls, while others are meant for boys), and they are more open towards different types of creative play compared to what their parents and society typically encourage. For example, 82% of girls believe it’s OK for girls to play football and boys to practice ballet, compared to only 71% of boys. However, despite the progress made in girls brushing off prejudice at an early age, general attitudes surrounding play and creative careers remain unequal and restrictive…”

It further adds that parents who answered the survey imagined a man for most creative professions. “They are almost six times as likely to think of scientists and athletes as men than women (85% vs. 15%) and over eight times as likely to think of engineers as men than women (89% vs. 11%). The children surveyed in this research share these same impressions except girls are much more likely than boys to consider a wider range of professions to be for both women and men,” it states.

The study also found that parents encouraged their sons to physical and STEM activities while daughters were offered dance and dressing up or baking.

“Parents are more worried that their sons will be teased than their daughters for playing with toys associated with the other gender,” Madeline Di Nonno, the chief executive of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, told The Guardian.

She added, “But it’s also that behaviours associated with men are valued more highly in society. Until societies recognise that behaviours and activities typically associated with women are as valuable or important, parents and children will be tentative to embrace them.”

Why were allegations of gender bias raised against Lego?

In 2012, Lego came up with Lego Friends, a range of products aimed at girls, which was heavily criticised for promoting gender stereotypes.

Two years later, a letter written by Charlotte Benjamin, a girl who was seven years old at that time, on the lack of strong female characters in the series, went viral. “I love Legos,” she wrote, “but I don’t like that there are more lego boy people and barely any lego girls…All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks.”

Lego Friends had been released as a form of course correction after a survey carried out by the company had found that 90 per cent of Lego’s consumers in 2011 were boys. After Lego’s gender-neutral buckets of bricks, the company had been at that time focussed on franchised sets based on properties like Star Wars and The Avengers.

During the course of their survey back then, Lego assigned a simple task to groups of boys and girls — they were asked to build a Lego castle. “The boys immediately grabbed the figures and the horses and the catapults and they started having a battle. They [the girls] all looked around inside the castle and they said, ‘Well, there’s nothing inside. This idea of interior versus exterior in the orientation of how they would then play with what they built was really interesting…We heard girls overwhelming saying we would much rather build environments than single structures. They were really just looking for a lot more detail than we were offering,” Lego spokesperson Michael McNally told The Atlantic.

The company then launched Lego Friends, a new line of products designed for girls. Among the construction sets in this series were a pop star’s house, limousine, TV studio, recording studio, dressing room, and tour bus, a cupcake café, a giant treehouse, a supermarket and a hair salon.

Though the products did well commercially, the backlash was powerful. Thousands of people signed a petition complaining about the gender stereotypes in the products. Lego Friends was nominated by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group, for a TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children) award. The group, in its description for Lego Friends, stated: “Introducing LEGO Friends, just for girls and so jam-packed with condescending stereotypes it would even make Barbie blush. Bye-bye square, androgynous figures; hello, curves ‘n eyelashes! And at the LEGO Friends Butterfly Beauty Shop, your little princess won’t need to worry her pretty little head about icky boy things like building.”

Lego has also been accused of promoting normative and problematic gendered stereotypes about the notions of beauty. Sharon Holbrook, writing for The New York Times, stated how her seven-year-old wanted to know if she had an oval face after reading an issue of Lego Club Magazine. “She is 7,” Holbrook wrote. “My little girl, the shape of her face, and whether her haircut is flattering are none of Lego’s concern. It wasn’t even her concern until a toy magazine told her to start worrying about it.”

Critics have slammed Lego Friends for using traditionally gendered colours like purple and pink for its products and promoting arbitrary physical standards such as the slender waists and disproportionately large eyes in the female minifigures.

To what extent can gender stereotyping in toys be harmful for children?

Many feminists, educators and parents have objected that Lego’s toys entered into the sexist domain of pinkification and promoted some of the worst conservative gender stereotypes.

A 2017 paper by a team of researchers led by Rebecca Gutwald, who works at the Munich School of Philosophy, highlights why Lego Friends is problematic. The paper states, “The Friends’ activities included cliched female occupations…While there is nothing wrong with these activities as such, the problem with Friends is that they seem to be presented as the only options for girls in this. LEGO world and in the world in general. This becomes clear when the Friends sets are compared to the sets that are usually marketed to boys. As Charlotte observed, boys get a much wider range of characters in themes like Pirates, the Research Institute. Speed Champions, or Knights.”

Drawing upon the work of feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, the researchers underlined the fact that “not all discrimination takes the form of explicit oppression”, and Lego’s products are a good example of how oppressive gender narratives can work in a far more insidious and disguised manner than always being blatantly obvious.

Feminist studies have long pointed out how ideas about gender are more cultural than natural — problematic gender roles can be entrenched in children through cultural objects and nurturing activities. In her seminal work The Second Sex, feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman…representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.”

Last year, a study carried out by the Fawcett Society found that “harmful” gender stereotyping has fuelled mental health crisis among the younger generation in the UK, and it is at the root of problems with body image and eating disorders, record male suicide rates as well as violence against women and girls.

The commission called on the government to take steps to challenge simplistic “pink and blue” labelling, and structure education curriculums that can question gender stereotypes.

What is Lego doing now to remove gender bias from its products?

The Geena Davis Institute, which carried out the recent survey, has been auditing Lego and advising it on ways to “address gender bias and harmful stereotypes”.

The company has stated it will strive to be more “inclusive” and ensure that “children’s creative ambitions – both now in the future – are not limited by gender stereotypes”.

In a statement on its website, Lego said, “We know there is work to do which is why from 2021, we will work closely with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and UNICEF to ensure LEGO products and marketing are accessible to all and free of gender bias and harmful stereotypes.”

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On the occasion of the International Day of The Girl (October 11), Lego, through its ‘Ready for Girls’ campaign, called on parents and children to “champion inclusive play”. The company developed a fun 10-step guide and invited parents to share photos of their children’s Lego creations against a pre-defined AR backdrop featuring the words ‘Get the World Ready for Me’.

It also made short films celebrating “inspiring and entrepreneurial girls from the United Arab Emirates, United States and Japan, each of which are already rebuilding the world through creativity”.

According to the statement on its website, Julia Goldin, chief product and marketing officer, The Lego Group, said, “The benefits of creative play, such as building confidence, creativity and communication skills, are felt by all children and yet we still experience age-old stereotypes that label activities as only being suitable for one specific gender. At the Lego Group we know we have a role to play in putting this right, and this campaign is one of several initiatives we are putting in place to raise awareness of the issue and ensure we make Lego play as inclusive as possible. All children should be able to reach their true creative potential.”

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