The news: While Lego has been happy to sell such innovative products as "Rapunzel's Creativity Power," "Ariel's Magical Kiss" and "Cinderella's Romantic Castle," it took Internet outrage and an independent campaign to finally introduce a line of female Lego figures who are not wearing ball gowns.
On Wednesday, the company announced a new collection titled "Research Institute," an all-female line with characters pursuing three distinct fields: astronomy, paleontology and chemistry. The project came about after Swedish geochemist Ellen Kooijman submitted it to Lego Ideas, a fan-based incubator that allows the Lego community to vote on potential collections. After earning the required 10,000 votes, "Research Institute" went on to be selected by the Lego board — beating popular franchises such as Sherlock, Adventure Time, Back to the Future and The Legend of Zelda.
"As a female scientist I had noticed two things about the available Lego sets: a skewed male/female minifigure ratio and a rather stereotypical representation of the available female figures," Kooijman wrote in a blog post. "It seemed logical that I would suggest a small set of female minifigures in interesting professions to make our Lego city communities more diverse."
Image Credit: Lego
Lego has had a gender issue for a while. The announcement for "Research Institute" comes at a good time for Lego. The company faced a lot of criticism when it introduced its Lego "Friends" line in 2012, featuring female characters who are "confident and love to have fun." Though it had a lot of promise, the line unfortunately amounted to reducing female figures to girly stereotypes: modelling on a catwalk, riding horses, baking cupcakes and hanging out on the beach.
Image Credit: Lego
And even the young customers caught on to Lego's gendered marketing. "Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses, some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses. So why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different color stuff?" asked 4-year-old Riley Maida, whose YouTube rant quickly went viral.
The issue garnered attention again this February when a 7-year-old girl named Charlotte Benjamin wrote a letter to the company, complaining that "there are more Lego boy people and barely any Lego girls." She also brought up how male and female figures pursued different professions, adding, "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 … even swam with sharks."
And Lego has been trying to make concessions. Last September, it released a female scientist mini-figure, and there have been other disparate female characters over the years that worked in STEM fields. But this is the first time that Lego has dedicated an entire line to female scientists doing gender-neutral, professional activities — taking a huge step from the gender-coded "Friends" collection.
There's a huge need for diversity among toys: Lego's initial instinct to market new products to girls should not be discounted; after all, these are precisely the types of toys that girls can benefit from. "Unlike tiaras and pink chiffon, Lego play develops spatial, mathematical, and fine motor skills, and lets kids build almost anything they can imagine, often leading to hours of quiet, independent play," wrote Businessweek's Brad Wieners.
But as the "Friends" line showed, well-intentioned efforts can sometimes reinforce gender stereotypes instead of breaking them. And though there is an increasing number of inspiring startups producing gender-neutral, girl-empowering toys, it's an enormous step for a major toymaker like Lego to acknowledge its misstep and dedicate an entire collection to women in science.
The "Research Institute" collection is estimated to hit the shelves as early as this August. Hopefully boys and girls can take a look at these awesome female scientists and imagine themselves doing the same thing when they grow up.