Oct. 28, 2021 — Last year, on a trip to Disney Springs, the shopping complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, Brianna Watson, a wife and motherhood blogger, and her then-3-year-old daughter, Ari, walked by the Lego Store, where Mickey Mouse, Maleficent, and other characters were featured in Lego form.
“I want some!” Ari exclaimed excitedly.
Ari, who Watson, 29, describes as “the definition of girly girl” with a fondness for pretty dresses and skirts, started pre-K in August.
After spotting a box of Legos in her classroom, it became clear to Watson that Ari’s interest in the construction toys never waned. She began asking to get to school around 7:30 a.m., giving her half an hour of Lego play before class starts.
“It’s typically her by herself or with another boy, or her teacher will go over there and play with her for a little bit,” Watson says.
While Legos are traditionally known as being products “for boys,” Ari’s love for building Lego towers and castles isn’t necessarily unique, according to new research commissioned by the Lego Group and carried out by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
Girls are often eager to take part in all types of creative play, including STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics)-related activities, like building the Empire State Building using marshmallows and toothpicks or making their own cloud with water, ice, hairspray, and a Mason jar.
But many lose interest as they grow older, and widespread societal beliefs about what constitutes girls’ vs. boys’ activities play a major role, findings show.
Today, women make up close to half of the U.S. workforce, but only represent 27% of STEM workers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Black (2%) and Hispanic (2%) women make up less than 5% of workers in STEM-related occupations, according to the National Science Foundation.
In efforts to combat these gender disparities, Lego launched its “Ready for Girls” campaign on Oct. 11, the United Nations’ International Day of the Girl Child.
Lego vows to remove gender bias from its products and marketing, and it will test products with boys and girls, says Julia Goldin, chief marketing and product officer for the Lego Group.
“We want to make Lego play more inclusive and ensure that children’s creative ambitions — both now and in the future — are not limited by stereotypes,” Goldin says.
Lego is not alone in its efforts. Mattel, the company behind the Barbie brand, is also releasing a slew of products in efforts to highlight diversity and inspire young girls to explore professions where women are underrepresented.
Seeing Yourself in Your Play
Giving children the ability to see themselves reflected in their toys is critical, says Marland May, a senior manager of diversity and inclusion within clinical trials and a former clinical therapist.
May, 38, who is Afro-Caribbean, knows this firsthand as the father of Afro-Latina triplets.
He and his wife, Anniella, who is of Argentine descent, are passionate about raising their daughters, Alexa, Brielle, and Camila, 5, to love and embrace their multicultural background.
Raising bilingual daughters can have its challenges if you live in a predominantly white neighborhood in Texas, where speaking Spanish isn’t always celebrated, May says.
In July, just ahead of the 2020 Olympics, Barbie released a doll modeled after Naomi Osaka, the 24-year-old tennis star who is Japanese and Haitian. May says this doll could be a tool to help his daughters — and other girls of mixed backgrounds — embrace bilingualism, a skill that keeps the brain active and enhances children’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“Now you’re opening up something where I can say, ‘This doll can speak two languages,’” May says.
“I can hype that up as something that’s normal, so that when they go and interact with their traditional American friends who are unilingual, it’s ‘You don’t speak two languages? That’s odd, because my toys can.’”
For Black and brown girls, it is particularly important to have dolls that reflect their physical attributes, he says.
“Many girls, the first thing they’re going to do, besides play with the doll, is try to brush their hair, put their clothes on. They’re going to become intimately familiar with that doll’s body, makeup,” May says.
“You don’t always want a Black doll to have straight hair, because then the narrative is going to be, ‘only pretty when your hair is straight and not curly.’”
But nowadays, finding a Barbie doll with curly hair isn’t challenging, given the fact that Barbie is no longer just a slender blonde; she is also JLO, Ibtihaj Muhammad, and Ashley Graham.
Currently, Barbie dolls come in over 35 skin tones, 94 hairstyles, and nine body types, according to the company.
Fighting Harmful Stereotypes
Children of all races having toys that reflect a variety of skin tones and hair textures can also help in combating negative associations of these characteristics that they may adopt through various outside factors, according to May.
“For a while, they started to recognize darker-skinned girls with curlier, kinky hair as bad or as negative, because the shows they were exposed to painted them in that light,” May says.
“How do you combat that to a 3- to 5-year-old and make it make sense and change that narrative to something that’s positive? That’s been our journey throughout these last couple of years.”
Barbie released a public commitment to the Black community, vowing to increase Black representation, highlight Black role models, and provide young Black with girls helpful resources.
The brand is taking its diversity efforts to the big screen as well, with its new animated Netflix musical, Barbie: Big City Big Dreams.
In the musical, Barbie “Malibu” Roberts goes to New York City for a performing arts summer program, where she meets Barbie “Brooklyn” Roberts, who is Black. After discovering they share a name and a passion for music, the roommates become fast friends as they go on adventures around the city.
Bridging the Gap
Similar to Lego, the Barbie brand is also making efforts to introduce young girls to industries where women are underrepresented, including STEM.
The brand now has dolls representing over 200 career professions.
Last month, the company released its first ever “DJ Barbie,” designed to “shine a light on the importance of women’s stake in the industry,” according to the company.
Women represent 2% of music producers, according to a recent Statista study on gender representation in the music industry.
And in August, Barbie added another profession to its list: superheroes.
The company released six dolls modeled after real-life first responders and women at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of these women is Sarah Gilbert, PhD, a professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford and co-creator of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
“I am passionate about inspiring the next generation of girls into STEM careers and hope that children who see my Barbie will realize how vital careers in science are to help the world around us,” Gilbert told The Guardian.
May says he’d be thrilled if his girls decide to go into STEM, which makes initiatives from companies like Lego and Barbie so important.
“Do I want them to fight gender bias for the rest of their lives and be seen as less than, just because they are women in the field that’s typically dominated historically by men? Absolutely not,” May says. “Do I think that Lego is doing an amazing thing by introducing girls to creative play? Absolutely!”
Watson says that Ari expresses various ideas of what she wants to be when she grows up.
Some days, she wants to be a veterinarian. Other days, it’s a doctor. But Watson believes that Ari may pursue something in the creative arts space.
“She likes to build with blocks. She likes to cut and paste and draw. So, maybe some type of engineering might be in her future, but you never know,” Watson says
But if her toys tell her anything, young Ari’s choices are endless.