Earlier this week, the LEGO Group celebrated the UN’s International day of the Girl by releasing new research revealing that girls are ready to break free from traditional gender stereotypes, while the rest of society perpetuates these stereotypes. I shall post the press release at the end of this article.
Essentially, girls are ready to take on most of the activities in society, but there are societal stereotypes that result in both parents and their male peers potentially holding them back. This can potentially influence the career paths that they may embark on as they grow up.
Following up from this information, The LEGO Group have committed to making LEGO Play more inclusive, and ensuring that children’s creative ambitions are not limited by gender stereotypes:
“We know there is work to do which is why from 2021 we will work closely with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and UNICEF to ensure LEGO products and marketing are accessible to all and free of gender bias and harmful stereotypes.”
“We acknowledge our responsibility in having contributed to gender stereotypes over the years, which is why we’re actively addressing the challenges that gender biases create and we’re committed more than ever to do our bit to put it right. “
In this article, I will aim to look at the current gender biases present in the Hero Shots as depicted on LEGO.com in October 2021.
In recent years, we have seen an increase in the number, and proportion of female minifigures released, both in ‘in-house themes’ such as LEGO City, as well as in licenced themes such as LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Harry Potter. There is still a way to go in some of these areas to achieve equal representation.
LEGO Friends was introduced in 2012 to fill a gap in the way that many girls had expressed as being a problem with the way they played with LEGO toys. Introducing a greater level of real world story based play, in conjunction with an animated series, the theme has not been exclusively marketed to girls, but you might feel the need to look hard to see this.
Free of Gender Bias is no the same as Gender Neutral, but is really a way of ensuring that nobody should be thinking ‘that’s for boys,’ or ‘that’s a girls toy’ as a part of the decision making process.
Today, you cannot search for LEGO toys on their website using toys for boys or girls as a search term. And while, historically, sales teams have been centred on a gender based demographic, they are now focussed more on specific themes or passion points.
Marketing Materials: Prevalence of Gender Bias in 2021
The LEGO Group have committed to having marketing material free of gender bias, and harmful stereotypes, and I have taken a look at the Hero shot – a photo with each set demonstrating someone building or playing with it. I set out to identify baseline biases in these hero shots across a number of LEGO Themes.
I obtained these images through either Brickset.com or LEGO.com, searching for product images where a human enjoying their LEGO set was shown. Where no image was present, I looked at LEGO.com (the process is a bit more complicated there). I downloaded images according to theme, and placed them into theme based collages, using Adobe Spark.
I looked specifically for gender representation within the collages, by counting the number of images with male and female representation. To look for overall bias, I looked at the difference in numbers between images with male and female representation, and also this difference as a percentage of images within the theme.
LEGO Star Wars
Here are the images involving LEGO STAR WARS releases in the 2021 calendar year. There were 20 sets released during the year that have featured images involving builders or children at play. Six of these were 18+ sets ( 2 female builders, 4 male). Of the remaining 14 sets, 4 had 2 people, one male, and one female. Seven of these 14 sets had a female child present. And one had a mum!. In summary: 10 of 20 images demonstrate female representation (either child or adult) Although, if you flip this: 14 sets have male representation.
Although you might argue that LEGO Star Wars was a theme that brought many fans of a certain age back to playing with LEGO sets, none of the adults in these pictures look like they could be over 40 years of age. (Thanks SAB for the observation there)
Along with Mindstorms, WeDo and Boost, Technic is one of the themes most closely aligned to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). The LEGO Group have long been keen to see that all children feel confident to investigate these areas, although in the past, there has been a decided male bias to the theme.
Here are the photos used in association with the Technic theme. While 6 of the 13 sets shown feature girls in the shots, a number of others feature models that are presented in an ambiguous way – hairstyles, facial structure and clothing to not specifically point towards the builders being male or female.
Here we can see some of the Technical set marketing images in catalogs from 1977-78: there was certainly no consideration in those days that girls might want to play with such sets in those days. I am gladdened to see that this has changed.
How about LEGO Creator 3in1? This is one of my favorite themes: it leaves the builder obliged to pull apart the hero model to build one of the alternate models: here are the images associated their marketing material from 2021. Thirteen sets. 9 showing male representation, 6 with girls (2 have boys in the same shot) We also have a boy in a wheelchair, modelling the Cyberdrone!
While we are seeing solid female representation, we see a significant bias towards boys in these shots.
LEGO City is, as always, a busy theme. Of 36 images, 17 images show girls at play; while 27 show boys – There has long been a long standing bias towards boys when marketing LEGO City, but things are certainly heading closer to reducing this. This year, we have also seen a few more sets that are dedicated to less traditional activities in LEGO City, including a house and skate park, as well as the new Stuntz range of flywheel motorcycles.
Ninjago celebrated 10 years this year: with a combination of both new sets, along with ‘LEGACY’ sets – modern reimaginings of classic sets. Of the 22 Photos available, 14 images have female representation, and 14 have male representation: This would appear to be one of the first themes we have seen where there appears to be no bias towards either gender across the range.
LEGO Harry Potter
LEOG Harry Potter also had an anniversary this year: this time 20 years! We have 14 sets featuring ‘builders shots’ and of these, 8 feature female representation, and 7 have male representation. This is a theme that has always been popular with girls, possibly more so than with boys and men, and it would appear that, overall, the images demonstrate a female bias.
The initial thought by many adults might be that as as theme based on a video game, perhaps boys relate to Minecraft more than girls, and there is evidence to support this notion, although the game does hold appeal for both boys and girls. Of the 12 sets released in the theme this year featuring with marketing images, 9 feature girls, and 6 feature boys. It would also appear that girls are more attracted to the Creative/Sandbox mode-which might be considered to be more analogous to be a digital version of LEGO Play- rather than the Survival mode. Another theme where the marketing material demonstrates a female bias.
Given the subject material in the Disney range: Frozen, Disney Princess, Raya and the Last Dragon, it is not surprising that there is a bias towards girls in this theme. Of the 17 sets shown, there is female representation in all of the images: with 7 images demonstrating male representation. In only one image is the only child playing with the LEGO a boy, and he is accompanied by an adult.
There are 2 superhero streams within LEGO sets this year: DC and Marvel. DC have released a paucity of sets, and not all of them are associated with an image showing the set being played with.
With only 6 images, there would appear to be three that clearly show female representation, and one sufficiently ambiguous through the photogrphic techniques used (bottom right).
There have been several sets announced this week, based on the forthcoming film ‘The Batman.’ None of those sets have marketing images with builders associated with them at this stage (accessed 14th October 2021)
Marvel has had a far busier year, with more Spiderman, more Avengers and a variety of sets associated with What If…, The Eternals and a set of Collectable minifigures.
There are 32 images associated with Marvel properties, and of these, 18 show female representation. There are 23 sets with male representation, including male adults. Overall, there is a slight male bias, but less than I had initally expected, based on the nature of the subject matter.
The central tenet of the theme: following the adventures of 5 (girl)friends around Heartlake city, has meant that there has always been a bias towards female minidolls in the sets. Over the years, the actual available sets at any time have seen a fairly consistent 1one set in 4 containing a male minidoll.
I am curious to see what might happen in 2022, the 10th anniversary of LEGO Friends: will they see a collection of golden minidolls? Will they undergo another ‘reboot’ the way that we saw in 2017, when most of the core cast had their overall appearance changed, becoming a more diverse group overall? Will they add some male characters to the ‘core group?’ Would they dare gender flip any of the characters as we have seen in updated versions of Battlestar Galactica, Shelock Holmes (Elementary) or Doctor Who?
This new announcement, removing the gender stereotyping from their marketing materials, does not mean that LEGO Friends is going anywhere. It has been confirmed through the LEGO Ambassadors Network that LEGO Friends will be back next year, and with a greater number of male characters than ever.
Certainly, Friends has been a mainstay in the world of the everyday in the LEGO portfolio in recent years, and I am excited to see the directions it heads in, going forward.
Here are the 2021 faces of LEGO Friends, as featured on LEGO.com:
These images also deprive at least 2 children with physical disability- a boy in a wheelchair, and a girl with a congenital undeveloped left hand. This type of representation is important for kids, especially those who have disabilities. They can see themselves as being recognised in mass media, and feel more positive about themselves (and dare I say, the product)
Like Disney, this is a theme which has been preferencially marketed towards girls for the better part of a decade, but not exclusively. And this is reflected in this year’s marketing materials. Seven of the 31 images have male representation, while all sets have some level of female representation. (2 images have a boy and an adult; one has an adult male with a girl, and the other4 have boys and girls playing together.) I feel this is more male representation than we have seen in LEGO catalogs next to images of LEGO Friends over recent years.
Dots featured 22 images with children showing off the new sets this year, and 8 of those have some male representation. As another theme that has been predominantly marketed towards girls, the boys in these images are hanging out, or playing with their friends, rather than playing /designing on their own.
Technically, Creator Expert had been overshadowed by the 18+ label across all themes this year, but was still used on LEGO.com to encompass those sets that did not fit the mould of any of the standard themes.
Of the 14 sets released under this label this year, 9 images have female representation, and 5 show male representation.
Perhaps we should consider adding the other ’18+’ sets to the collage, and see how it turns out?
There have been 35 sets this year released with the 18+ label to date, including LEGO Ideas. 18 have male representation, 17 have female representation. At this stage, there are still a couple of sets to be revealed, along with their associate ‘lifestyle’ images. [edit: I recognise that I have left out 3 LEGO Art sets: Harry Potter Hogwarts Crests; Mickey and Minnie Mouse, as well as the world map. The first 2 featured women whose face you cannot see, while the world map features a woman and a man.] Ultimately, things are running fairly close to parity in the Sets for Adults space.
Most themes that I looked at feature girls or women in half their images. In those themes where it was less than 50%, it was within a couple of images of that mark. However, most themes showed a degree of bias, with a preponderance towards one gender or another in these shots.
At this point in time, there is a greater degree of gender bias to be seen in the media associated with themes traditionally popular with girls: LEGO Friends, DOTS and Disney. I was surpirsed to see a slight female bias in the images accompanying the LEGO Minecraft sets.
Females are well represented, but not as much as males in LEGO City, Star Wars and Creator 3in1. They are more evenly represented in the materials for Ninjago, Harry Potter, Super Heroes and Creator Expert/18+
I acknowledge that I have not examined all themes released in 2021 – including Monkie Kid, BrickHeadz, LEGO Super Mario, LEGO Speed Champions and Vidiyo. However, looking at the pooled images presented, we have over 270 images, and 65% demonstrate some level of female representation, and 55% have some form of male representation. (if we exclude Friends, Disney and DOTs, these ratios are reversed.)
The ‘Hero Shots’ with the online shop are of course only one example of the marketing images used by the LEGO Group: there are also things like package design, store displays, the print/virtual print catalogues and the LEGO.com product landing pages, as well as TV commercials and other print advertisements.
What would you regard as a successful elimination of gender bias? No more than One or two more imagesdisparity? Five per cent? Ten per cent? With the exception of Ninjago, and Harry Potter, most themes still demonstrate a significant degree of gender bias, while there is a large degree of female bias in Friends, Disney and DOTS.
I am not setting out to judge the LEGO Group with this study. These hero shots bring us happy, smiling kids playing with LEGO. They come from a variety of cultural backgrounds. However, there are ways in which representation can be improved going forward: gender bias is one thing, but also ensuring a good spread of ages, and representing people with a disability. Indeed, even spectacles were rare in the provided images.
This study provides a point prevalence example of the gender bias in a specific range of themes, in mid October 2021. It will possibly change in a couple of months, when the next wave of sets drops.
I will probably wait for a year or two before I set out to review the data again. And how do you measure it then? By looking at images for sets currently on sale? For new releases? Or some other index?
If you would like to read more about issues pertaining to gender bias and representation in LEGO sets, I recommend taking a look at the work by the Women’s Brick Initiative . They have done a remarkable amount of research over the last few years covering this sort of material.
I’d love to know your thoughts about this – why not leave your comments below, and until next time,
Girls are ready to overcome gender norms but society continues to enforce biases that hamper their creative potential
Billund, October 11th: New research commissioned by the LEGO Group reveals that girls today feel increasingly confident to engage in all types of play and creative activities, but remain held back by society’s ingrained gender stereotypes as they grow older. The study was carried out by the Geena Davis Institute in recognition of the UN’s International Day of the Girl and to mark the launch of a new LEGO® campaign, ‘Ready for Girls’, which celebrates girls who rebuild the world through creative problem solving.
The research, which surveyed nearly 7,000 parents and children aged 6-14 years old in China, Czech Republic, Japan, Poland, Russia, UK and USA highlights the need for society to rebuild perceptions, actions and words to support the creative empowerment of all children.
Ready for Girls
The research findings show that girls are ready for the world but society isn’t quite ready to support their growth through play. Girls feel less restrained by and are less supportive of typical gender biases than boys when it comes to creative play (74% of boys vs. 62% of girls believe that some activities are just meant for girls, while others are meant for boys), and they are more open towards different types of creative play compared to what their parents and society typically encourage. For example, 82% of girls believe it’s OK for girls to play football and boys to practice ballet, compared to only 71% of boys. However, despite the progress made in girls brushing off prejudice at an early age, general attitudes surrounding play and creative careers remain unequal and restrictive, according to this research:
º. For most creative professions, parents who answered the survey imagine a man, regardless of whether they have a son, daughter, or both. They are almost six times as likely to think of scientists and athletes as men than women (85% vs. 15%) and over eight times as likely to think of engineers as men than women (89% vs. 11%). The children surveyed in this research share these same impressions except girls are much more likely than boys to consider a wider range of professions to be for both women and men.
º Our insights further indicate that girls are typically encouraged into activities that are more cognitive, artistic and related to performance compared to boys who are more likely to be pushed into physical and STEM-like activities (digital, science, building, tools). Parents from this study are almost five times as likely to encourage girls over boys to engage in dance (81% vs. 19%) and dress-up (83% vs. 17%) activities, and over three times as likely to do the same for cooking/baking (80% vs. 20%). Adversely, they are almost four times as likely to encourage boys over girls to engage in program games (80% vs. 20%) and sports (76% vs. 24%) and over twice as likely to do the same when it comes to coding toys (71% vs. 29%)
Rebuilding the World
On International Day of The Girl, the LEGO Group is calling on parents and children to champion inclusive play. To help, they have developed a fun 10-step guide and invite parents to share photos of their child’s LEGO creations against a pre-defined AR backdrop featuring the words ‘Get the World Ready for Me’.
In addition, the LEGO Group has made short films celebrating inspiring and entrepreneurial girls from the United Arab Emirates, United States and Japan, each of which are already rebuilding the world through creativity.
Fatima & Shaikha (18 and 8, UAE) Fatima is the UAE’s youngest inventor. Her sister Shaikha loves space and wants to be the first woman on the Moon.
Chelsea (11, USA) is the founder of Chelsea’s Charity, where she gives away free art supplies to children in need so they can creatively express their emotions and overcome challenging times.
Mahiru (11, Japan) is a key member of SEEDS+, a school marching band that exists to bring joy through music and creativity and rebuild how her city is portrayed after the difficult time it’s been through.
The campaign will be further amplified through local partnerships and activity in several locations.
“As a Mom of three children, I have long admired the LEGO Group and I’m heartened by their global commitment to this study to inform how we can dramatically inspire creativity in girls through play and storytelling,” said Geena Davis, Founder of Geena Davies Institute on Gender in Media. “We also know that showing girls unique and unstereotyped activities can lead to an expanded viewpoint of possibilities and opportunities.”
The role of LEGO play
The LEGO Group believes in the value of learning through play and that the development of 21st century skills from LEGO play are equally relevant to all children.
While many parents perceive the LEGO brand as a good example of an inclusive toy brand, LEGO play is still considered more relevant to boys than girls, with 59% of parents saying they encourage their sons to build with LEGO bricks compared to 48% who say they encourage it with their daughters. This view became more pronounced when parents were asked to complete an implicit bias assessment and 76% said they would encourage LEGO play to a son vs. 24% who would recommend it to a daughter.
“The benefits of creative play such as building confidence, creativity and communication skills are felt by all children and yet we still experience age-old stereotypes that label activities as only being suitable for one specific gender. At the LEGO Group we know we have a role to play in putting this right, and this campaign is one of several initiatives we are putting in place to raise awareness of the issue and ensure we make LEGO play as inclusive as possible. All children should be able to reach their true creative potential,” says Julia Goldin, Chief Product and Marketing Officer, the LEGO Group.
The ‘Ready for Girls’ campaign aims to help girls rebuild the story and welcome more girls to LEGO building, ensuring they aren’t losing out on the benefits of LEGO play due to societal expectations. The company will ensure any child, regardless of gender identify, feels they can build anything they like, playing in a way that will help them develop and realise their unique talent.
Ensuring more inclusive play and raising the debate around gender norms is critical, not just for girls but for any child. The LEGO Group knows that boys are also battling prejudice when it comes to creative play and playing with toys that are traditionally seen as being for the opposite sex. 71% of boys vs. 42% of girls say they worry about being made fun of if they play with a toy typically associated for the other gender. The company is committed to making LEGO play more inclusive and ensuring that children’s creative ambitions – both now in the future – are not limited by gender stereotypes. We know there is work to do which is why from 2021 we will work closely with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and UNICEF to ensure LEGO products and marketing are accessible to all and free of gender bias and harmful stereotypes.