Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Gendered Engineering Toys, Part I: Feminization

Engineering is typically a man's area. A white man's area, to be more specific. This is a stereotype seen time and time again, whether through surveys (asking who can be an engineer or what careers are for what people) and Draw an Engineer Tests (PDF), a simple exercise where you ask anyone, usually kids, to draw what they think of when they think about an engineer doing engineering work. While the gender gap is something that educators have been working on for many years in engineering, it still persists. In the US, under 15% of engineers and under 20% of engineering undergraduates are women, while women make up over half of the population as a whole and 55% of the undergraduate population (NSF 2012 S&E Indicators). A lot of this has to do with the perception that engineering is a career that is not "for me" based on the idea that engineering is for white men who are good in math and science and sit in a cubicle all day working on problems that probably aren't that relevant to most people. For example, Dilbert:

One common downfall in trying to increase the number of women in any STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) subject is the idea that we should feminize it to draw in more girls, or as commonly stated, "Make it pink!"

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
Lego, a building toy that can be considered an engineering toy, tried that tactic recently with their Lego Friends, a lineup with differently-shaped main characters, colors considered feminine (pink and purple), themes that are supposed to appeal more to girls (cars, cafes, and beauty parlors), along with accessories and houses that were mostly prefabricated rather than an assortment of blocks to build:

This created a major internet frenzy. Bloggers and people on internet forums everywhere decried this new form of Legos, and for good reason: in the 1980s, Lego (among other companies) had no problem advertising its product as excellent for boys and for girls, no gender differences necessary:

While I give them credit for trying to expand their lineup with storylines and products that appeal more strongly to girls, I don't see why they changed the basics of their product so greatly. Legos have always been building blocks, and even the playsets that are made for specific themes are mostly composed of the typical Lego blocks, in colors that match the theme with specific minifigures (MiniFigs) and some specialized blocks to help make the set really come alive. Contrast the Harry Potter Knight Bus with the Friends Stephanie's Cool Convertible Car Set:

They're both for the same age range (Knight Bus rated for 7 - 12, Convertible rated for 6 - 12), but one is explicitly gendered while my sister (the Harry Potter fan) owns the other one. The Knight Bus is made of common sizes of purple Legos, with mostly common transparent pieces and common wheels; if you decide you are no longer a Harry Potter fan, you can easily use these pieces to enhance your other Lego collection to build almost anything. The description even states, "Rebuilds into a London bus or regular bus," so without any other Lego sets, you can still build and re-build this themed set into something else entirely, and even more things if you use your imagination. The only real Harry Potter specific pieces are the MiniFigs of Harry (with his wand), the conductors, and Hedwig, the owl. Even those can be re-purposed; Lego MiniFigs are generally a separate pair of legs, a torso, two arms, a head, and a hairpiece or hat, all of which can be interchanged between just about any other MiniFig, or even attached to other Legos. The legs can typically attach to other bricks either standing or sitting, giving a plethora of possible combinations and adventures.

Conversely, the convertible can never be anything else. Sure, there are a few blocks that will integrate with other sets, but most of these pieces are custom-molded for this purpose and this purpose alone, and can really only integrate with sets like the Knight Bus if you decide your Bus is in need of a wash with the car wash supplies that come with the Convertible. You can still interchange the legs, torso, head, and hair of the mini-dolls, and even interchange the hair with the MiniFigs, but you can't attach the mini-doll with other blocks as easily and the hands, while still able to hold things, don't rotate, so are limited in how they can be used to hold things (comparison). Focus groups with girls found that they had a desire for more realistic dolls, and while I can't complain about the figure changes too much (they are cute figures and I can see how they could be more appealing), I do wish they retained at least the ability to swivel their hands or be more interchangeable with the other version. I personally like the torsos and heads but would switch out the legs for more usability, if they were compatible.

I played with Legos. I loved my Legos. I also had a Visible Horse, a multitude of puzzles, and a chemistry set. I loved experimenting and building. While I typically liked to stay within the rules and make the things according to the instructions, I constantly took things apart to re-make them into something else. With the Mega Bloks Cactus Town set, I would rearrange the order of the buildings and was sad that there were so many pieces with specific stickers and places they had to be. While I think that trying to open new lines of toys that had more appeal to girls was not a bad move on their part, Lego went for feminization to the exclusion of even traditional Lego ideals - these are not building block sets so much as playsets manufactured by Lego. Even the Duplo sets have more construction than many of the Friends sets, and these are made for children 1.5 - 5 years old! I would be annoyed to move from the Disney Duplos Cinderella Castle to the Friends Olivia's House and be less able to build and customize.

One thing I must give Lego credit for - many people are afraid to buy toys (or anything really) for kids (or anyone really) that isn't specifically for that child's gender (or other category of interest). They offer a "Girls" category for shopping on their website, and it isn't full of pink Legos or the Friends sets, it's got a wide range of sets and accessories that would be more likely to be chosen by girls, but are in no way marketed to or for girls specifically. This is the kind of marketing that should be done. You want to buy something for that special girl in your life? Here's some things she might like out of our entire range. Of course, there isn't a "Boys" section, it is still considered the default.

I wonder why we seem to be moving to a more gendered society, at least when it comes to children's toys and clothing. Young kids mostly play the same and are mostly shaped the same, why were we able to appreciate this in the '80s and now, in 2012, when you'd think we'd moved more towards equality, we're making even more stereotypically gendered toys?

Next time: Goldie Blox


  1. I was a fan of the Paradisa LEGO sets in the early 90's. A departure from the usual Sci-Fi and Fantasy sets, this one was centered on "girl" themes like horseback riding and tropical island resorts. It introduced pink bricks to the LEGO arsenal. What it wasn't, however, was OMG FOR GIRLS. It had the same typography. All the pieces were normal (but for their color). The horses were the same horses as your knights and pirates were riding. After my sister's initial interest waned, the base boards found themselves part of my sprawling, slightly pinker space empire.

    I guess what I'm trying to say here is I wholeheartedly agree with your closing question. Even LEGO themselves somehow addressed this market segment less offensively 20 years ago.

    1. That's more like the kind of thing I'd prefer to see. Maybe change the colors, make the themes less shoot-'em-up and more relationship-based, change the figures like the focus groups suggested to appeal to a broader market - just don't take away the building with Lego bricks aspect. Girls like to build too! Why is there no Disney Castle in the Landmarks/Architect section, but one in the Duplos? Lego, you're missing out here!