Whether playing with them, screaming whilst accidentally stepping on them, or watching the cartoons, we have all been once in one way or another in contact with these little pieces that we call Lego.
In 2021, the famous company Lego promised to remove gender bias in its toy line. After conducting a survey which found that whilst 76% of parents would encourage their sons to play with Lego, only 24% would encourage their daughters to play, Lego stated a “need for society to rebuild perceptions, actions, and words to support the creative empowerment of all children.” There are a number of practical plans in place for this movement away from gender bias, for example including more women Minifigures in action-type sets, creating more equal marketing campaigns, and re-styling their ‘Lego for girls’ range Lego Friends. However, Lego does not stand alone in the toy industry, and they must overcome deeply entrenched gender norms in order to achieve a level playing field.
First, the nature of Lego itself is a ‘boy’s toy’. Although Lego claims, “we don’t use gender segmentation and we test all products with boys and girls, just as you can only [shop for Lego] products by passion point and not gender identity,” their efforts do not discount the biases already in place around construction toys. It is well researched that different types of toys lead to the development of different skills: playing with a doll encourages caregiving, a tea set encourages conversation, and a construction set, such as Lego, encourages spatial awareness and even mathematical prowess.
You will already have recognised which skills, and therefore which toys, are traditionally associated with which gender identity. In order to truly make Lego a brand for all children, they will have to successfully argue why those engineering skills developed by playing with Lego should be prioritised over those more social skills developed by playing with other toys. Or, foster an after-play experience that encourages these other skills also. Arguably, Lego did attempt this with the Lego Friends series by naming the characters and creating a storyline, but as this series was targeted toward girls, it perpetuated the notion that socialising is a ‘girl’s skill’ as opposed to one important for all children.
Second, Lego’s view on addressing gender stereotypes may actually perpetuate them. An example of this is Lego’s new campaign ‘Ready For Girls’ whose catchy tagline is “how do we get girls ready for the world? We don’t, we get the world ready for them.” Whilst this is a fantastic move as it shifts away from forcing girls to adapt to the world, and instead encourages the world to change, Lego is still dividing children into the categories of male and female. Even the research that sparked this movement perpetuates this divide, for example in the quote: “Parents are more worried that their sons will be teased than their daughters for playing with toys associated with the other gender.”
Third, Lego’s recent championing of the LGBTQIA+Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Trans (T), Queer (Q), Intersex (I), Asexual (A), + denotes an umbrella term used by 'marginalised sexual and gender diverse people whose gender, gender expression, or sexual identity do not conform to cis-gender or hetero-dominant gender identity'. This acronym is intersectional by virtue of its nature as well as non-exhaustive and inclusive (as denoted by the +). Over the years, the + has been understood as encompassing Questioning (Q), Two-spirit (TS), or Pansexual (P). In other words, this term represents fluid (non-conforming) notions of gender identity and sexual orientation supposedly transgressing the binary constructs of our society (male v. female and heterosexual v. homosexual).close community in their 2021 Pride Campaign might have made them more sensitive to those children who don’t identify as male or female. Whether rainbow washing or not, it was indeed a step forward. Similarly, continually addressing potential customers as either male or female hinders the company from true neutrality, as underlying gender biases continue to come into play. Lego as a company is in the perfect position to create a wholly non-binary toy, not just to benefit non-binary children, but to benefit all children. Their acknowledgement of their own gender bias, and awareness of gender issues, could fundamentally change the toy industry by removing gender identity altogether.
There is of course no easy answer. Ignoring gender completely might lead Lego back to the same unconscious biases they tried to address with their Lego Friends line. Just like hiding behind supposedly colourblind yellow Minifigures won’t deconstruct unconscious racist biases given that many people will equate yellow with white rather than other skin tones. Yellow unfortunately was not neutral then and isn’t now. By seeking to represent all under one skin colour, Lego actually perpetuates certain colourblind and racist tropes where light-skinned people still remain the default/dominant option. This prevents Lego from truly being inclusive and representative of today’s society.
All in all, encouraging young girls to develop creative development skills is a fantastic effort and the inclusive work that Lego does is commendable. However, simply arguing that their brand will become ‘gender inclusive’ by encouraging more parents to buy products for their daughters still remains quite short-sighted.