Lego could have encouraged STEM education for girls--but launched the Friends line instead

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There's been some outrage over the new Lego Friends line, intended to bring more girls into the addictive world of Lego building. Initially, I felt it was a fair extension of the Lego product family. Now I'm concerned about the messages Lego is sending to our future builders and innovators--both boys and girls.


Update 1/30: People who have called or emailed Lego to ask about the new magazine described below have heard changing stories since Impeus first blogged about it. Their current message is that the photos in the magazines will feature both boys and girls.


It's not the first time Lego has tried to appeal more to girls. Way back in 1959, they advertised the Lego Doll House, and in the early 60s, they began offering instructions for building dollhouse furniture. In the 1970s, it was the Homemaker series, which included human characters, pre-dating the now popular "minifigs." From 1992-1998 they offered the Paradisa System, which included pink parts and "feminine" themes. In 1995, the Freestyle basic-brick sets came in a pink suitcase. (Thinking Brickly further explores the history of gender and Lego, the good and the bad.)

The new Friends line includes Olivia's Invention Workshop, a pastel science lab with a pet robot and math on the blackboard. It's not exactly super-accurate--Olivia wears OSHA-offending flip-flops in her lab--but it's better than if the line had shown women only as toenail-painting, shopping-crazy beachgoers. And thus the sets themselves didn't concern me much. There will be boys who want to play with the sets as well, and in my opinion, Lego doesn't have a history of girl-bashing, or necessarily even girl-avoiding. Then came a blog post from the UK.

In it, "impeus" explains that her daughter, a subscriber to the Lego Club Jr. quarterly magazine, had this month automatically received Lego Club Girls instead. This new version features the Friends line, of course. What it doesn't feature is any building instructions, which the magazine usually does, including the current edition. An accompanying letter allows you to opt out of Lego Club Girls for the "regular" one instead. Impeus writes:

Ah. Well. There we go. It’s not boys and girls. It’s girls and ‘regular’. You can be a normal child, or you could be one of those others. You know, the girls.

Further, she notes that the old version of the magazine included pictures of kids playing with their Lego bricks. She asked the company whether girls would still be shown in the "regular" magazine and was told that no, photos of girls will be in Lego Club Girls only from now on, regardless of which magazine they choose to subscribe to. Now not only are the girls told they should be separated, but the boys won't even see that they exist. And if a girl should prefer to keep the "regular" edition that includes build instructions instead of just pretty pictures? She'll never see anyone who looks like her.

 


(Edit 1/27: Impeus' blog now notes that people who call Lego are getting a different story--early callers were told the above. Those who call now are told a different story about photos as well as that the Girls magazine may be scrapped. No word on the other content, like whether those who get Lego Club Girls will be seeing build instructions.)



STEM education is suffering, especially in the US. Even worse is the way we approach girls in STEM education. But the kids who love playing with Lego bricks--building, creating, seeing how things fit together--are precisely the ones we should be encouraging to pursue STEM careers. By building this separation between boys and girls (or girls and "regular"!), Lego is only discouraging half the population, and precisely the half that needs more support in these fields.

It's worth noting that Friends was not cooked up in a marketing meeting in which someone shouted, "Girls like pink and purple!", giving birth to shapely minifigs and beach sets. It was the result of significant observational research with families around the world. Lego CEO Jorgen Knudstorp called it "the most significant strategic launch we've done in a decade."

Knudstorp also said that with Friends, Lego hoped to "reach the other 50 percent of the world's children."

If Lego genuinely wants to reach that 50 percent and make progress for the future of science and technology, Friends is the wrong approach. The company's research showed something significant beyond the fact that girls prefer the new, shaplier minifigs to the familiar squarish ones. It showed that although boys like to assemble kits start-to-finish, girls play more along the way. The girls are applying creativity to the toys.

Olivia and her science lab are a nice nod to the fact that girls enjoy science too. But what if they took their research observation--that girls play creatively rather than plowing through kit instructions--and applied it to the Mindstorms line of programmable robots?

Maybe in addition to their research, Lego should have looked more to the FIRST Lego League, in which 9-16 year-olds use Lego Mindstorms to solve real-world problems. The winner of last year's inaugural FLL Global Innovation Award, given to a team of innovators ages 6-14 who created an original solution to a real biomedical engineering problem, was an all-girl group from Iowa called The Flying Monkeys. They created a prosthetic hand to help those born with hand abnormalities, such as a toddler born without fingers who was able to hold a pencil for the first time. Two other teams were also honored, and one of them was all-girls as well. They developed a glucose monitoring system with a watch and implantable microchip. That seems to be evidence enough that girls can do more with Lego products than play beauty parlor.

Push the Lego girl focus to science and away from just pink, and then not only do the girls win--our future wins.

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27 Comments

tawster's picture

Great article. One quibble. You gotta put this in there at the first instance of usage:
"Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)"

Not everyone (myself included) use STEM in everyday parlance. :)

Craig's picture

You are right on. I had to look it up too!

Jim (JR)'s picture

Likewise!
When I first saw this, I wondered "What does STEM cell research have to do with Open Source?"

Jim (JR)

mattdm's picture
Community Member

I highly suggest calling Lego customer service and talking to them about this — what you would like to see, and how your children react. 1-800-838-9647. My friend who used to work for Lego and still has contacts there says that the company weights phone calls very highly in their gauge of customer response.

Russ Nelson's picture

Ruth, a few things I'm not sure you know about. First, Tyco tried making a brick set "for girls". It was your basic brick set, only the bricks were white, pink, purple, and green. Oh, and instead of the thin bricks being 1/3rd height, the Tyco thin bricks were 1/2 height.

Second, Tyco *does* support STEM with their Dacta sets. You probably don't know about them because they're advertised to, and available to, schools. They're also somewhat subsidized by TLG. They're not cheap or anything, but they're cheaper than regular Legos. See http://www.legoeducation.com/

Third, we tried interesting my daughter in building with bricks. We bought her Duplo blocks, and then Lego blocks, and then the Tyco blocks. No such luck. Now, that's based on a sample size of one, of course, but my son got presented with all the same toys as my daughter (literally the same :), and he "took" to the Legos where she didn't.

There are a number of young women and AFOLs building with bricks, but not as many as men -- using the existing sets. TLG doesn't want to miss any sector of the market, hence Friends. If you think there's a better way to attract more women to building with bricks, you should do some research to find out what has succeeded and what has failed in the past. You might find a new business model!

suehle's picture
Open Source Sensei

Russ, you'll note I said that I didn't have a problem with the Friends line when it launched. I'm pretty sure my son would love a set. You'll also note that I briefly chronicled the history of building sets targeted to girls, so I'm aware that it's been done before. My problem is with how Lego treated girls with the /magazine/--removing them from the boy/regular magazine and giving them a separate one that targets them as pretty consumers, not builders.

Russ Nelson's picture

s/Second, Tyco/Second, TLG/

Russ Nelson's picture

I got and agree with your objection to the magazine. Didn't understand that you agreed with TLG's choice to market sets to women. Sorry!

Russ Nelson's picture

That said, the headline does not assist in making your point about the magazine, and TLG *does* encourage STEM with Dacta.

Jeffrey Watts's picture

Interesting article, but where's the tie in to Open Source? Also, IMHO your criticisms and conclusions seem based on some pretty flimsy supporting evidence - where's a response from LEGO (note the capitalization)? You're essentially presenting hearsay as fact.

Again, I thought your post was interesting but I think the writing could have been a bit more professional.

suehle's picture
Open Source Sensei

To answer your questions in order...

1: STEM education is important for obvious reasons to open source as in software. It's also important to the greater sense of open source as we discuss it on this site. Lego toys clearly are supportive of that aspect of education when it comes to things like the FLL and robotic lines like Mindstorms.

2: I linked to several responses from Lego, which have been changing depending on the day you call.

3: Many style guides, including Associated Press choose not to observe what some call "vanity" capitalization or punctuation, e.g., the all-caps LEGO or the exclamation point that Yahoo! uses.

mattdm's picture
Community Member

The unwritten version of the AP stylebook, strongly preserved by oral tradition, says "You want all caps? The ad desk is right over there!"

Jeffrey Watts's picture

Thanks for the followup.

What I'm not seeing in your article is a clear, logical connection between "girly" toys and an emphasis on STEM education. Your article seems to presume an obvious link, but in my opinion there isn't any supporting evidence. I also don't feel that it's necessarily "obvious" that STEM is directly related to Open Source software. I know many talented programmers that were educated in other fields, for example. Mind you, I don't disagree that there's a correlation, but you didn't make a clear logical case that girly toys = women failing to get educated in science, technology, engineering, and math = impact on the open source movement.

In regards to what LEGO has or hasn't said, perhaps I'm missing something but it seems that what you're reporting is third-hand hearsay. Have you called the line yourself? Can you provide a transcript? Did you get a quote from LEGO's management or PR? What is LEGO's side of this?

I'm sure that what's been reported has some truth to it, but without followup and accurate reporting it's hard to ascribe larger motives to it - and those supposed larger motives are key to the point you're making with this article. Was it an errant customer service representative? Perhaps the call center is outsourced and wasn't given accurate information? We don't know because it doesn't appear that LEGO was given the opportunity to respond.

Again, I thought your post was thought provoking and could have been great - if you'd clarified your argument better and followed up on the incidents that are the foundation of your argument.

Thanks.

Jeffrey Watts's picture

Sorry! The following line:
"but in my opinion there isn't any supporting evidence"

Should have read:
"but in my opinion there isn't any supporting evidence presented"

Thanks again.

suehle's picture
Open Source Sensei

Not between "girly" toys and STEM, but between the creative building play that happens with Legos, espcially the robotics like Mindstorms, and STEM. IMO, girls who are interested in building robots when they're 10 are exactly the girls we should be encouraging into innovative science careers. I never said that the girls who only play with Barbies and My Little Pony will fail to enter STEM careers. (This is where I point to the Computer Engineer Barbie on my desk, who has a penguin on her desk!)

And it's not thirdhand--I linked directly to people who called. All you have to do is read the comments on any of Impeus posts to see more things from people who called themselves. You can also easily follow a direct timeline of changing stories from Lego, from the first call Impeus made through the next few days as the story changed to something more like, "No, no, girls are great! We'll post pictures of them everywhere!"

Jeffrey Watts's picture

Ruth I appreciate that this is a blog and that you're not a journalist. You need to understand though that just because someone posted something somewhere on the Internet it doesn't make it true. My criticisms weren't so much that what you were saying was or wasn't true, but that because I can't determine the credibility of your facts your argument is on a shaky foundation.

Again, I think your article is thought provoking but fundamentally flawed. There's a reason that there are journalism schools at most major universities and that blog posts by non-journalists are generally viewed with some skepticism by most educated people.

Please don't take this as an insult, but more of a challenge to improve your future articles. I think you have a lot of potential.

suehle's picture
Open Source Sensei

I don't think you /do/ appreciate the functional differences between a blog and a newspaper. But my journalism degree (which I do have) and I won't take offense. A newspaper story is a thing of research because its responsibility is built on the knowledge that that may be the only information you get on the subject, because historically, it probably was.

Here in the future, with blogs and communities and forums, sometimes we do deeply researched stories. But sometimes we just point to another place on the web to say, "Someone over here is saying something interesting, and here's what I think about it." That doesn't make it "hearsay." That makes it a link. And gives you the ability to discuss it here and there, and anywhere else you want--because you too can link to all the different discussions and add your own! It's the magic of the medium. And it's why traditional media, like say, The New York Times, have blogs now too. If there weren't value in both, they'd stick with a web version of the old print stories. But that's not what the future demands.

I also think you're incredibly wrong that blogs posts are viewed with skepticism. That's a very circa-2000 kind of attitude. Repeatedly, blogs and now social media have scooped traditional journalism and even corrected their errors. Coverage and awareness of things like the early days of Occupy Wall Street and SOPA were clearly the domain of bloggers, not traditional media. Blog coverage of Trent Lott's comments about Strom Thurmond's presidential campaign back in the 40s led to /Lott stepping down/. Here in 2012, bloggers have plenty of credibility--and effectiveness.

Jeffrey Watts's picture

Thanks, nice followup and I appreciate the clarification of your views. As I think we've stated our opinions and I certainly respect yours, even if I disagree with some of them.

I think though that we're not communicating when it comes to my use of the term "hearsay". I'm stating it as a matter of fact - the accounts you're linking to are second or third hand and aren't able to be easily corroborated. The reason I make that distinction is that the crux of your argument relies on a lot of "ifs". "If LEGO customer representatives said those things", "if they were instructed to do so and weren't misinformed/incompetent", "if LEGO group really means to exclude girls from the regular catalog", "if girls are discouraged from playing with more technical toys they're less likely to do well in STEM", and "if girls don't excel in STEM the Open Source movement will suffer".

What made me speak up is that there's a lot of "ifs" and not a lot of facts presented. There are some giant leaps in between the individual assertions in your line of reasoning. I think your train of thought has merit and is worth discussing (and probably has truth to it), but your opinion isn't really defensible with the lack of supporting arguments. That's all.

Oh, and the linkbait-ish headline kind of irked me a bit. Anyhow, take care and thanks for taking the time to respond to my nitpicking. :)

Somebody's picture

Wow...there are so many other things in this world more worth getting upset about than this. Lego now has 2 newsletters - one for all kids (read: boys AND girls) and one specifically for girls. Maybe it's because they want girls to get involved that much more. Should I be upset about my son not having a newsletter option specifically devoted to things boys like? Philosophical BS aside, maybe they just want to double their revenue stream. Rather than scream on the Internet about silly, petty stuff like this, maybe you can find something more productive and beneficial to humanity to do with your obviously-abundant spare time.

mattdm's picture
Community Member

And yet you have spare time to anonymously comment on the post.

Irony aside, the original report — based on a real, actual conversation with a Lego representative — was that Lego was completely moving all girls to the "special" one, and that the regular Lego club would not "read: boys AND girls".

Were that true, it seems totally worth getting upset about.

Jeffrey Watts's picture

Alas, that's the problem - a lot of allegations and hearsay, and very little actual facts. :(

suehle's picture
Open Source Sensei

What's not "hearsay"? Multiple bloggers and commenters have said that they called Lego themselves and posted the results. I liked to those. Is linking to firsthand results now "hearsay"?

Jeffrey Watts's picture

Yes, it's hearsay. If you had called yourself and posted your own transcript and better yet, also called LEGO and gotten a statement from them it'd be a much better article and it wouldn't have been hearsay. You could have also linked the other reports but cautioned the reader on their credibility (according to some accounts, allegedly, etc).

Jim (JR)'s picture

Jeffery,

Back when I was in school, (way, WAY back), we had a figure of speech for this kind of stuff.

We called it "Majoring in the Minors" or "Trivial Pursuit"

I really hate to break the news to you, but this isn't the New York Times - or even the Daily News for that matter. It's a bleedin' BLOG for chrissakes!

What *I* got from this article, (and what I presume the author wanted to show with her inclusions), was that:
1. Lego/Tyco stuck their foot in their mouth so far it was coming out their #$@!!
2. It created a furor. [insert hyperlink to examples of the furor]
3. Lego/Tyco is now trying to do some furious back-peddling - cum - damage control to help extricate the foot they swallowed.

Q.E.D. Customer / public response can, and does, have significant impact. (Ref: Petition on the topic of SOPA, et.al. and the White House's response to that furor.)

If you think you can do a better job - and it sounds like you do - then please let me invite you to create, and post, YOUR OWN blog entry on this topic - rather than pick this one apart.

Also: You sound like an intelligent, interesting, detail oriented person. It would have been much more useful to the rest of us had you used your particularity to discuss the **SUBJECT** of the article rather than the way the blog author presented her facts and opinions.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

suehle's picture
Open Source Sensei

You're missing the point entirely. What is "what girls like" and "what boys like"? Why are you making a distinction? Research has proven that that attitude is /exactly/ how girls get pushed to the fringes and neglected in science education.

tawster's picture

JeffK's picture

Our children love to build with Legos and have done so for many years. Our daughter got one of these new Friends sets for her birthday. All of our children (two boys & two girls) looked at it from the stand point of "what new building components came with this set?"
They build with all of the pieces and program the Mindstorms cpu. The children are completely color blind and gender blind. I'm pretty sure Legos can neither take credit nor blame for my childrens' desire to build. STEM is much more than building with bricks. We just try to teach them to think creatively while excelling at all of their school subjects.
Thank you for the nice article. It is somewhat disturbing to find out that girls will no longer be seen in the regular magazine -- all of our children read it when it arrives in the mail.