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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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LEGO, Sexism, and Stereotype Threat

Comments (38)

I love LEGOs. So, when I saw the page yesterday of the new LEGO Minifigures (sent to me by Lucy Sanders, the CEO of National Center for Women & Information Technology) I threw up a little in my mouth.

Like me, Lucy is a LEGO enthusiast, but she was not happy to see how women (or minorities) were represented in the LEGO Minifigures sets. Sure, there is a female snowboarder, a female tennis player, and a lifeguard, but the rest of the female Minifigures are a hula dancer, pop star, cheerleader, witch, and nurse. And that’s it. While I have nothing against nurses, entertainers, or athletes, these mini-figures are perpetuating ridiculous stereotypes about both women and men.

At NCWIT (where I am the Chair of the board) we’re grappling with the problem of how to attract, retain, and promote girls and women in technical education paths and careers. Many K-12 teachers who want to introduce their students (girls and boys) to computing and engineering use LEGO products like Mindstorms and Technics and LEGO energetically markets their products for this purpose. That’s a good thing.

However the ridiculous Minifigures perpetuate standardized, simplified, and damaging conceptions of acceptable pursuits for women. Such perceptions have contributed to keeping women away from many types of jobs, including computing. These are not harmless toys – they are sending messages to girls and boys about where they belong on a daily basis. If you doubt the serious impact of this exposure, I encourage you to learn more about stereotype threat, especially the work of Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson.

At NCWIT we’re working hard to make computing, technology, and business more inclusive. C’mon, LEGO. Your products are a great avenue for educating our young people, but your Minifigures are stuck in the past. Get rid of them.

  • http://blog.3bigheads.com John Stack

    Wow, I didn’t think about this until you pointed it out. Now, questions:  If they address this, how? Alternate between male and female heads when they add a minifigure? Interchangeable heads? 

    • Gev1138

      The heads already are interchangeable, so it’s trivial to put lipstick on a sumo wrestler. Not that lipstick automatically means girl or anything.

  • http://peterimbres.com/ Peeta

    I hate how they pigeonhole men too.  Why do all men have to be firefighters, policemen or airplane pilots?  Talk about professional discrimination!  How will my children learn about the importance of consultants, CPAs and tax attorneys unless they’re accurately represented in a small toy that reflects a caricature of our society based on the interests of toddlers?  

  • http://muchosalsa.com/blog David

    I’ve just started to post about instances of sexism in technology that I see. Unfortunately there is no shortage of examples. I’m really glad to see that this problem has your attention. 

    http://sexismwatch.tumblr.com/

  • http://www.twitter.com/gcsf Gary Chou

    Thanks for writing this.  Kimono Girl?  Le sigh.

  • http://www.thoughtsonconsumerweb.com/ Satish Mummareddy

    I lived in India for the first 20 years of my life. The stereotypes in India are the same: Pretty women in movies, women raise kids at home irrespective of whether they have a full time career or not, teachers, nurses bank clerks, doctors etc. But when the IT boom happened in India something happened…..

    Women went to engineering colleges. (of course there is 33% affirmative action for women in India across the board so it made it easier for women to get in to schools but when they very given the opportunity they took it.) So why did women get into engineering in India while they did not in the US?

    Here are the reasons:
    1) The best paid jobs in the US were Law & Medicine. So a majority of the best academic students went to those fields. In India the other professions didnt pay as well relatively once the IT boom came along. So the best academic women just went into engineering.

    2) In the US kids are constantly told careers are about finding passions, so they end up doing useless majors till they get a master and realize they are unemployable. Some smart people fall into this group. In India career is for survival and for changing the whole life style of your family from poverty to above middle class. So women found meaning/interest in what careers paid and that career was enginering.

    My wife on the other hand was raised primarily in NJ. Her father was a life long software engineer. He did not want her daughter or son-in-law to be an engineer because he felt that software engineers were hurt by the ups & downs of the economy while medicine, & law provide a much higher consistent pay check than engineering. :) If he was in India I bet he would have pushed his daughter into computer science because law & medicine didnt pay much at all.

    So my point at the end of all this it that the economic incentives to attract the best women into engineering are stacked up against engineering. And we need to stop telling kids careers are all about passion: careers are all about finding passion in something that impacts the world. :)

  • greeley

    I was just about to put this exact thing on facebook. Last week I got the lego catalog and was going to order some for my girls, but after seeing that the female figures were pretty stereotypical, I decided not to buy any. All of the construction workers, pilots, even characters that came with the town sets were male. A few months ago I had to special order lego characters with varying skin tones for our son, because the lego sets I bought him came with only bandaid colored figures. As for characters designed specifically for girls click on the url and see the images of “girls” being portrayed to the average 7 year old girl: http://tinyurl.com/6ggreus

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Good write!  What they need to do is seperate the mini figures where the family can choose the arrangement.  That would mix it up depending on there being two daughters, one son and so on.

    An explanation of what is the goal, followed by setting a table where circles with color/hair can be used to set up the order.

    Prepackaging can be achieved based on stats. 

    BTW Brad, you’ve probably seen some of it in action… First Robotics has a lot of gals involved and working directly on design/construction.

  • Adrian

    Common, can we stop bashing Lego !? … the minifigs are all right … if you fail to achieve your own gender quota this is YOUR fault and not the one of Lego … obviously what YOU have to offer is not attractive to women … it’s not like women are more stupid than men, they are very smart and chose what’s attractive to them … so either accept that YOUR offer sucks for women or shut up, but please don’t bash Lego for a totally perfect toy!

  • Mark

    Wait till the LBGT groups finds out that the LEGO figures don’t represent them either…all hell is going to break loose..

  • Chris

    Maybe you should reevaluate your own stereotypes. I challenge you to actually identify the gender of each of these figures (the ones with facial hair are fairly straight forward). The Crazy Scientist looks like a girl I dated in high school and the Ice Skater and Kimono Girl are obviously in drag.

    • Lucinda Sanders

      Go to the bio section for each figurine – the gender of the figure is obvious from the write up – read them anyway if you want an interesting read – try the nurse or the cheerleader.

    • Carter Adler

      That was my thought from looking at them too (before I read the bios). The Hockey Player and the Punk Rocker could well be women.

  • http://stevenhb.myopenid.com/ StevenHB

    Have you and NCWIT contacted LEGO directly to raise these concerns? How?

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      No but it’s a good suggestion.

  • Guest

    The issue is that we worry about this. We devalue women by saying they have to be engineers or they have to have careers outside of their homes. What about women who want to stay home and raise their children with a parent at home? We need to stop trying to dictate what others have to be to be successful. Women will become engineers if they want to, not because some LEGO figure is dressed as one. 

  • Anonymous

    Brad, this post hit a nerve. I grew up with LEGOs, I cannot remember exactly why (probably my father’s toy censorship) but LEGO was the only toy I played with, and I loved it. But my sister had barbies, dolls, etc. I never perceived this as a problem, until I had a daughter. Today when we go to the girls’ toy aisle, there is almost no color but pink. Nothing wrong with pink, but you simply cannot find anything but stereotype pink toys for girls. You know, ponies with colorful tails, make up sets, OK maybe there are few purple toys. This bothered me and I did some reading few years back. I read about a campaign targeting kids’ cartoon producers encouraging them to have more female lead characters. I am looking for that cartoon study but here is the abstract of a study about commercials, which in my opinion explains the root of the problem (emphasis mine).”According to the 1983 Nielsen Report on Television, the average North American girl will watch 5,000 hours of television, including 80,000 ads, before she starts kindergarten. The 1996 study “Images of Female Children in TV Commercials” found that in the United States, Saturday morning cartoons alone come with 33 commercials per hour. Commercials aimed at kids spend 55 per cent of their time showing boys building, fixing toys, or fighting. They show girls, on the other hand, spending 77 per cent of their time laughing, talking, or observing others. And while boys in commercials are shown out of the house 85 per cent of the time, more than half of the commercials featuring girls place them in the home.http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/issues/stereotyping/women_and_girls/women_girls.cfm

  • Jordan

    Oh yes lets place all the blame on lego and none of the responsibility  on the parents to oh you know  explain to their children that you can do almost anything if you apply yourself.

  • http://patrickfoley.com/about Patrick Foley

    This post obviously hit a nerve with people – Brad was passionate with his point, and some of the
    comments were passionate (though not particularly eloquent) in disagreement.

    The conflict I feel inside myself stems from a concern that people mistake gender equality with gender sameness. I laud your support for improving opportunities for women and for actively seeking to improve the quality of our industry’s workforce by increasing the pool of qualified people. That said, I fear we diminish wonderful qualities in both our genders when we try to pretend they do not exist.

    Yes, it’s a generality that most boys like guns and most girls like ballerinas, and it’s worth pushing back a bit against those generalities. I will be thrilled if my 8-year-old son latches onto ballet (something my wife and I both love), yet currently he is more interested in BMX racing. I’m pleased to see how many girls share the track with him on race nights, and yes, I make a special point
    to tell parents of girls to bring their daughters and check it out (I brought one neighborhood girl myself). Those are positive ways to “push back a bit,” but those positive actions don’t make the generalities less true.

    I grew up in an environment where gender differences were considered almost bad … it’s not a
    shock that I developed a certain gender “blandness” and by the time I reached high school, I used to joke that parents liked me better than girls did. There are positive aspects to this – I don’t fear “feminine” impulses in myself (have you watched America’s Next Top Model? It’s awesome …
    and Glee? Oh my GOD!) … but there are drawbacks, too. After 20 years of marriage, I’ve learned that my wife would appreciate a bit MORE machismo from me sometimes. Opposites attract, and my gorgeous, feminine wife doesn’t get turned on when I slip into fabulous mode to describe her new outfit. On the other hand, she really likes it when I kill bugs and fix the lawnmower and
    sweep her off her feet. Believe me, she is welcome to kill bugs and fix the lawnmower if she likes, but it turns out that I do in fact like those stereotypically male activities more than she does. Makes me strong like bull …

    A book that I have recommended many times on this subject is David Deida’s The Way of the Superior Man (http://www.amazon.com/Way-Superior-Man-ebook/dp/B004A8ZWM4/). Deida argues that “polarity” or the natural differences between masculine and feminine are necessary for our species to get it on and achieve meaningful sexual relationships (even if partners are gay – and men and women can even switch polarity, for example through role play). I discovered this book at
    a very dark time in my marriage, and it played a key role in helping me save it and keep my family whole. It helped me understand that gender differences are wonderful, and that we can embrace them and celebrate them at the same time we expand our definitions of normal for both men and women.

    If Deida is too hippy-drippy for you, then I recommend Wild at Heart by John Eldredge (http://www.amazon.com/Wild-Heart-Discovering-Secret-ebook/dp/B001OLRNE0/). Eldredge approaches the topic from an overtly Christian perspective, but he says many of the same things Deida does in a plain-spoken, simple way. I disagree with him on his assessment of homosexuality, but I think his heart is in a good place.

    Both of these books are written primarily for men. I have yet to find a really good book that
    approaches positive gender differences from a woman’s perspective, but to be fair, I haven’t looked very hard.

    Parting sidenote: one could argue that the real problem with LEGO is that they are attempting to
    be so literal instead of focusing on their “build anything you can imagine” roots. In my opinion, there is an underlying sadness when we can identify human figures at all while buying a LEGO product – we should have to build the figures ourselves.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Patrick – thanks for the thoughtful comment. Compared to some of the hostile
      and belligerent ones, it’s refreshing to actually see someone thinking about
      the issue, which was my goal with writing the post.

      I completely get the resistance to “gender sameness.” In fact, NCWIT (and I)
      have a strong believe in gender differences. My concern is “gender
      stereotyping” and “gender bias”. Gender stereotyping is a huge issue,
      especially for parents and young girls (and boys), and has many of the same
      problems that ethnic stereotyping have.

      Thanks for taking the time to put some effort into your comment – it stands
      out in sharp comparison to a few others.

      • http://patrickfoley.com/about Patrick Foley

        You are most welcome. It’s a very important subject to me as well. Glad to hear NCWIT (and you) believe in gender differences – I will read up on them to learn more.

        Meta-comment on the conversation itself … your response reminded me of the recent PSA on the “R-word” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T549VoLca_Q. As someone who used to casually use that word in conversation (that PSA inspired me to drop it), it is a useful reminder that choosing our words carefully is important – if choosing my words more carefully ever makes one person in the world feel greater self-worth? Well that’s certainly worth it to me.

      • Pat in Houston

        I can appreciate your point and respect where you’re coming from, but you aren’t actually suggesting that belligerence in and of itself bespeaks an absence of thinking, are you? I wholeheartedly agree that the personal remarks (re: “shut up” and “f*5k”) do less than nothing to support the cases of their respective posters.

        I guess you and I maintain different definitions for belligerence (an observation, not a critique). Mine is synonymous with “open hostility”.

        Perhaps I do not know enough about the gender issue to offer educated comment, but I suspect that, as a LEGO enthusiast, you probably understand more about why some of these folks are irate then your response to Patrick indicates.

        The simple fact is that they are passionate about their LEGO hobby. So when an internet-based article – which is open to anyone to read – comes out accusing one of the benefactors of their enjoyment (in this instance, TLG) of something as inexcusable as gender bias, they tend to get their dander up, regardless of the validity of their counter-arguments. Many of these folks are parents who have likely taken great pains to teach their children at the earliest comprehensible age the problems imposed by gender prejudice.

        In any event, I don’t believe that your point was so ill-taken as the suggestion that TLG completely dump the offending (re: “ridiculous”) minifigures and be done with it, and I suspect that this “radical” solution is the primary source of the flak.

        You do state your case clearly; that much is certain. Perhaps, as an alternative suggestion to banishing the offending minifigures forever, the situation can be retrieved if TLG were to include a small foldout showing what has already been suggested – examples of how the different parts of the minifigs be interchanged so that the “girl” can be anyone; i.e. show the clearly-female head of the Surfer Girl in the suit of the Hazmat Guy – now you have the Hazmat Girl. Anyway…

        Regards,

        Pat in Houston

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          My reaction is based on my believe that it’s not actually that “the simple
          fact is that they are passionate about their LEGO hobby.” If they were, I
          think they could make a more reasoned argument! But that’s just my
          perspective – I accept that their perspective is different, but when I go
          back and read a few of the comments, I have a hard time believing it’s a
          function of their love of their LEGO hobby. But everyone is allowed their
          opinion.

  • Anonymous

    Really, you and Lucy Fields of the National centre of insert group, are down to Lego.
    Jesus on a piece of toast, if you had a blank page and put the word ‘the’ on it, I reckon you and Ms, Mrs Fields would take out the narrow lens and find some way of redefining it as sexist …xyzist.

    Women don’t need a crutch like the National centre of whatever the f*5k and your ridiculous one dimensional article, to succeed. They need to stop being thought of as precious little flowers whose entire future is based on a ‘message’ that lego is sending. The ludicrous notion that a group can only succeed in life if higher intellectual powerhouses such as Fields and yourself are looking after them.

    Grow up.

  • Anonymous

    Really, you and Lucy Fields of the National centre of insert group, are down to Lego.
    Jesus on a piece of toast, if you had a blank page and put the word ‘the’ on it, I reckon you and Ms, Mrs Fields would take out the narrow lens and find some way of redefining it as sexist …xyzist.

    Women don’t need a crutch like the National centre of whatever the f*5k and your ridiculous one dimensional article, to succeed. They need to stop being thought of as precious little flowers whose entire future is based on a ‘message’ that lego is sending. The ludicrous notion that a group can only succeed in life if higher intellectual powerhouses such as Fields and yourself are looking after them.

    Grow up.

  • Pakwidodo

    First off – I want to point out that you have a valid point – many toys today place stereotypical professions on boys and girls, and this is an issue that definitely needs to be brought to the publics attention.

    But to attack your issue with Lego – I disagree with you.  Yes they have “stereotypical” female characters like the pop stars and nurses, but there are more female characters than princesses and cheerleaders that contradicts your claim;

    The female in these sets are doctors (and labeled as such),not a nurses (year -1986-2011)
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItem.asp?S=6309-1
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=doc033&in=S
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=doc036&in=S

    Airplane pilots (2000/2003/2006)
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=adv018&in=S
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=adv049&in=S
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=air030&in=S

    A Deep sea diver (2010)
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=atl008&in=S

    Not the most noble profession, but pirates (1989-2009)
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=pi057&in=S
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=pi056&in=S
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=pi101&in=S

    This woman is a traffic flight controller (1985)
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=air011&in=S

    A chef (1999/2009)
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=chef006&in=S
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=chef019&in=S

    A Director’s assistant (unless you see this as “Nurse”) (2000)
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=stu013a&in=S

    A gas station attendant/mechanic (1980!!!)
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=exx001&in=S

    Police woman: (1980-2010)
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=cop046&in=S  (this set also has a female tow truck driver)
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=cop024&in=S
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=cty241&in=S

    I don’t know what this one is – but she works for an airline (poor lady) – but not necessarily a “stewardess” (2011)
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=air047&in=S

    ..not to mention the “Agents” series including female spies, (2008-2009)
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=agt002&in=S
    http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItemIn.asp?M=agt024&in=S

    And there are many more……

    Lego will be expecting your apology any day now.

    • Sarah

      It’s good to know those figures are there, but they don’t show up on the Lego Minifigures page that’s linked from the Lego home page. If they can only be bought as part of sets, then this is not a general solution to the problem. As greely points out, there is a whole other Lego world that’s pink and also very stereotypical.

      The real solution, as some commenters have observed and as Brad notes about himself and NCWIT, is choice and variety rather than stereotyping. If you are one of the hostile skeptics who have responded, you probably didn’t read up on stereotype threat. It’s been repeatedly confirmed in research and is still alive and well in the toy aisles and many classrooms. Seriously, go to your nearest big box toy store. NOW there are gender-neutral sections (that was not true 15 years ago when I was sending my students on field trips to Toys R US) but there is also a pink section and what I’d like to call a “blue” section for lack of a better word.

      I agree wholeheartedly that boys are being stereotyped as well as girls. Ask me about the trouble I had finding clothes for my son that did not have football/basketball/baseball insignia on them! And the action figures for boys–so violent and terrifying. Children’s toy and clothing stores reveal a very deep anxiety about gender in our culture.

      It’s both boys and girls who are being harmed and limited, although the
      roles that boys are stereotyped into generally pay better! I like the solution of interchangeable parts for the Minifigures. The parts are in fact interchangeable, and perhaps many kids do interchange them. Perhaps, too, many kids are not aware of the gender Lego has “assigned” the figures. But the situation remains that the figures Lego has created and has given “back stories” are SO twentieth century.

      • Pakwidodo

        I understand the concept of stereotype threat and agree with you that it exists in many toy lines and toy stores.  I just don’t see how calling out Lego for creating a female cheerleader or pop singer when they also create what would be considered more positive characters(and lots of them).  Are they to ONLY create female characters that are scientists, policewomen and the like and not include your cheerleader and pop star?  Not only would this cheat the children out of reality, but I am pretty sure that there are many children out there, female and male, who want toys like this.  I just think that this article is unfairly classifying Lego, when they have, in my eyes, been very responsible to the public. 

        (When this article was brought to my attention, I felt obligated to defend my favorite toy of all time and I would hate for any parents to deprive their children of Lego because of disparaging remarks like this).

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          FYI – I love Lego’s also. But, I think in this particular case, they’ve
          completely missed the mark.

  • Serge

    I think what would be more important here are the parents who play LEGO with their children. In that scenario, it would be easy to explain to the child that the figurines represent a subset but not the absolute totality of the character they are representing (ie. there can be women firemen and male nurses too) As always, LEGO is just a tool to help facilitate a child’s growth and education. How that tool is employed is key to achieving that goal.

    For the record, the first complex LEGO set I built with my two daughters was a spaceship. Not exactly in confirmation with the “norm” but they loved it anyway.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_FR4GQTQWKJOUATXXVPYTLW2L7M Stefan

    My girlfriend never seems to have a problem with the “stereotypes” and bogeymen you’re conjuring up.  When she found out about my Lego collection, she wished she’d been exposed to such neat toys when she was a kid, and promptly started her own collection of police and city vehicles.  So far she’s made street peddlers, houses, santa and mrs. claus, and she was ecstatic when she bought the recent blacksmith’s shop (http://brickset.com/detail/?Set=6918-1), which seems to me like a set you would probably look down on as “enforcing negative stereotypes.”  After all, it has weapons and armor.  No way a woman can enjoy those things.  That’s the more damaging view of things, thinking people are incapable of seeing things as anything more than what they are, or that they shouldn’t be expected to defy and challenge society’s expectations.

    I should probably also mention that she loves the Collectible Minifigures that prompted you to launch your attack on one of the best toys on the market.  Especially the Geisha, Skaters, and Surfboarders.

    And let’s read up on stereotype threat: “For example, stereotype threat can lower the intellectual performance of African-Americans taking the SAT reasoning test used for college entrance in the United States, due to the stereotype that African-Americans are less intelligent than other groups.”  That’s not stereotype threat, that’s good old peer pressure.  Go watch BET for a while and tell me stereotype threat is still a valid concept.  A culture is responsible for maintaining it’s own standards.

    And one last thing in closing – Collectible Minifigures are selling like hotcakes.  Your opinion doesn’t matter to the LEGO purchasing public.  And that is a good thing.

  • Hans

    OK – So, you (aæready) have a mini-figure (male) fire fighter and a (female) hula dancer. LEGO is all about building and being creative. Switch the heads – and you now have a female fire fighter and a male hula dancer – you decide. You can even use a market to paint lipstick and pretty blue eyes on some of them. I am sure that if we asked LEGO to ensure a gender mix – they would (have to) increase prices even further, as they would need more mini figures to “do the same job”.

  • Mr. Allworthy

    You know the great thing about the LEGO minifigures is that the child has to build them together, so if you want a female pilot or firefighter, you can just take the the pretty cheerleaders head and put it on the pilot or firefighter body..

    One of the key visions of LEGO is Creativity and Imagination, the point mentioned above is just how to trigger that…

  • Vovan

    whats wrong with you? I’m afraid if you are so sensitive you smell like vomit most of the time. People are outraged for no reason so easily these days, as if there are no other issues in the society.

    btw, they have a Cave Woman!

  • Vovan

    whats wrong with you? I’m afraid if you are so sensitive you smell like vomit most of the time. People are outraged for no reason so easily these days, as if there are no other issues in the society.

    btw, they have a Cave Woman!

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