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A Sadly Brief History of Girl Toys Finding STEM Jobs

Lego's new Research Institute set includes a paleontologist, astronomer, and chemist, all female.

by Meghan Neal
Aug 5 2014, 4:15pm

Image: Alatariel Elensar/LEGO Ideas

There are over 100 Lego minifigures, everything from a bandit to a DJ, and it only takes a quick glance through the list to see how the selection reinforces gender stereotypes. The baseball player and businessman are male, while the first female on the list is the bride. Girls get the cheerleader, waitress, fairy, fitness instructor, the Hollywood starlet. Boys get the judge, the graduate, the daredevil, the pilot. (Of course, gender isn't the only thing being stereotyped; just take a look at the "Mexican" minifig.)

But now, good news: Women can add paleontologist, astronomer, and chemist to the list of options.

Responding to popular demand (or at least, a small but loud outrage set off by a 7-year-old girl's now viral letter to Lego complaining all their female minifigs were "boring"), Lego has launched a new set: the Research Institute, with three new scientist figurines, all female.

This is a good thing. In fact, Lego says the lady-filled lab set was in development even before the viral letter, and finally hit shelves this week for the modest price of 20 bucks.

The Research Institute (side note: could that name be any more basic?) is the latest in a clear cultural push to quash outdated gender stereotypes in kids' toys, particularly pertaining to science, technology, engineering and math. The theory is that a dearth of relatable role models in STEM fields discourages girls from pursuing those tracks later in life. But are a few extra brainy lego figurines or a computer engineer Barbie doll really going to make a difference?

Yes! Of course cultural conditioning plays a huge role in shaping how we view ourselves and shape our ambitions. I remember wanting to play the drums when I was little but decided not to; it was too boyish, I thought, and there was no badass drummer Barbie to reassure me the instrument was fair game, Y chromosome or no. As Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani told Wired recently, "If you can't see it, you can't be it."

In the last few years the fight to convince girls there are better things to want to be than a pretty pink princess has caught its stride, thanks to campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys, which successfully got Toys R Us to remove 'girls' and 'boys' signs categorizing products its shelves and website, and startups like GoldiBlox, a Kickstarted construction toy set that's "disrupting the pink aisle" with toys for future innovators. 

But it's been an uphill battle, with some high-profile setbacks. Remember the now infamous 1992 talking Barbie that spoke, "Math class is tough! Party dresses are fun. Do you have a crush on anyone? Math class is tough!" Needless to say it was a PR disaster; Mattel quickly canned the product.

Anyway, in honor of the arrival of Lego's hard-won female scientist figurines, and inspired by journalist Maia Weinstock, who has been following the Lego gender story closely over at Scientific American, here is a sadly brief history of female toy figurines in STEM fields.

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1978: The Town Doctor

Image: Brick Link

Surprisingly, the very first female Lego character, introduced in the late 70s when Lego started distinguishing gender in its minifigs, was a doctor, part of Lego's "town" theme. Granted, nearly all of the engineers and scientists working in the town were male. But there was a lady doctor. Way to go!

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1993: The Astronaut

Image: Lego Wikia

It took two decades after Lego introduced its all-male "space" theme for the cosmic crew to be joined by a female: the "Ice Planet" astronaut.

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2012: The Computer Software Engineer

Image: Amazon

Yes, Barbie the computer programmer is basically a supermodel with pink eyeglasses and a pink laptop. But she's come a long way from complaining that "math is tough," and an even longer way from the earliest roles the doll was given by Mattel: a model, ballerina, flight attendant, and candy striper.

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2013: The Ambiguous Scientist

Image: Lego

Before the astronomer and paleontologist came along, Lego had just one female scientist, a sort of vaguely defined catch-all for the entire field. Per the Lego bio: "The brilliant Scientist's specialty is finding new and interesting ways to combine things together."

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2014: The Entrepreneur

Image: Amazon

Last month, Mattel introduced "entrepreneur Barbie," which comes with a smartphone and tablet accessories, but also a skin-tight "professional" pink outfit dripping with girlie cliches and continuing to reinforce dangerous body image issues. Unsurprisingly, this last attempt to buck traditional gender roles (which, it's worth noting came out shortly after Barbie modeled for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issuewas not well-received.

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2014: Miss Possible

Image: Miss Possible/Indiegogo

On the other end of the coin is a new project that looks quite promising. An engineering alumna from the University of Illinois launched an Indiegogo campaign to create a "Miss Possible" doll meant to inspire girls to consider a range of possible fields. The dolls mimic real historical female role models, like Ada Lovelace. It's raised $65,000 of its $75,000 funding goal with 12 days left. Give it a boost, eh?

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Next?: Geologist, Robotics Engineer, Construction Worker, Firefighter, Mechanic, Judge

Image: Alatariel Elensar/LEGO Ideas

The Dutch geochemist that designed Lego's new Research Institute set, Ellen Kooijman (alias Alatariel Elensar), has submitted several other female character designs to LEGO Ideas incubator site

Next up on the list: judge, mail carrier with a bicycle, mechanic, firefighter, falconer with two birds, geologist with a compass and hammer, robotics engineer designing a robot arm, zookeeper with tiger, and construction worker. These could quite possibly also find their way to shelves in the near future. 

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