Recently. Lego released a limited edition set called the "Research Institute" that included female scientists (a chemist, astronomer, and paleontologist). While advocates for gender equal STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) toys are cheering, we should reflect on why Lego has released these toys in a limited edition set. The Research Institute set sold out so quickly that normal retail toy stores didn't even have the chance to sell them.
Meanwhile in homes across the country, most children are playing with Lego's top selling "Friends" set that provides girls with the ability to see themselves as beach party-goers, pet lovers and homemakers. While there is nothing wrong with showing these roles to young girls, it is justified to present them with all the opportunities, not just the "traditional" ones.
Additionally, these plastic people are role models that send a message to our boys of what to expect out of the other gender. As a female engineer, I thrive on technical challenges and solving problems that help people. It is not 1950, but I am challenged daily to break gender role barriers and help my coworkers see me as an equal and not a foreigner who has to doubly prove herself worthy before being let into the club. Maybe if some of these men had a female chemist in their standard Lego set, the concept of my existence, let alone intelligence, would not be so hard for them to grasp.
These sold-out limited edition Research Institute Legos have probably found their way to bright and high potential girls whose parents are positive STEM advocates in their education. What about the kids who don't have such strong advocates? We need to reach them and say, "Look, scientists and engineers help people and you can be one no matter your gender."
There was a quote in the documentary Miss Representation that says, "You can't be what you cannot see." Women and girls thrive on role models, both in toy-form and in real life. As a middle schooler in the late '90s, I had wonderful parental advocates and was fortunate to attend a school where my eight grade science teacher, Mrs. Patty-Sue Hudson, invited renowned U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones to come speak to us about careers in science. Mrs. Hudson, a wonderful STEM advocate herself, knew she needed to bring role models to the students. While one seismologist can reach many people, large scale production toys have the ability to influence thousands.
As Lego overtakes Mattel as the world's largest toy maker, they have the ability to become the world's largest influencer on a generation. Kudos to Lego for taking a positive step in the right direction for advocating for gender equality in STEM. I challenge Lego to create the role models that we all desperately want this generation to see and help make female scientists part of the "norm" instead of a limited edition.