Why pink LEGO might be bad for girls (but we’re not convinced)

GettyImages-681325218.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

While the idea that the lack of women in science and tech is entirely about cultural obstacles is contentious (as demonstrated by the recent Google memo furore), few would argue that social and cultural factors aren’t important. And these social influences may begin early. For example there’s an argument that boys are encouraged to play with toys that are likely to promote skills that will help them in science and maths. Toys aimed at girls, in contrast, are more likely to promote stereotypically feminine skills, such as nurturing.

LEGO, say Megan Fulcher and Amy Hayes, the authors of a new paper in the journal Sex Roles, is a case in point: its marketing is skewed towards boys, especially since the increase in packaged sets, which tend to feature stereotypically masculine items like pirate ships and castles. The result, they argue, is that boys are more attracted to LEGO, girls deterred from it, and that boys get to practice their building skills while girls don’t.

LEGO has heard some of this criticism (and no doubt also seen a gap in the market) and they’ve released girl-friendly packaged sets and product lines, including Friends items with a focus on people and including pink bricks. But Fulcher and Hayes – who very much speak from the nurture perspective on these issues (they fail to cite a single study demonstrating a biological basis for sex differences in toy preference) – fear this could be counterproductive because girlie bricks and sets are likely to promote more stereotypically feminine LEGO play and remind girls of their gender. To find out if their concerns are justified the researchers tested the LEGO building skills and choices of 116 girls and boys (aged 5 to 10) depending on whether they were given boyish LEGO bricks and packages or girlie ones.

For the first phase of the study, the boys and girls were randomly assigned to follow instructions to build either a stereotypically male design (a dinosaur) or a female design (a cat). Also, whatever object they were trying to build, half were given boyish bricks to use (blue/green), and half were given girlie bricks (pink purple).

Fulcher and Hayes predicted that girls would be slower and less accurate to build the LEGO when they were tasked with building the cat and/or when they were using girlie bricks (because these items would activate “typically gendered play scripts” and remind the girls that “there is a different kind of LEGO for you”).

In fact, this wasn’t the case: the girls’ (and boys’) speed and accuracy was just the same regardless of what type of bricks they used. And girls and boys alike more quickly and accurately built the cat than the dinosaur, presumably because it was easier. However, whatever they were building, overall the boys were quicker at construction than the girls (with no accuracy tradeoff) and this remained the case even after factoring out experience with and interest in LEGO.

The second phase of the study involved free play. Half the girls and half the boys were given girlie bricks (pink and white) to play with and build whatever they wanted, the other half were given boyish bricks (blue and grey). Each set also included wheels (supposedly boyish) and eyes (supposedly girlie). The children could take as long as they wanted and when they’d finished they were asked to say what they’d built.

Overall, the boys built more stereotypically masculine objects than girls, such as water monsters and machine guns. They also incorporated wheels more into their designs than did the girls. This was as the researchers predicted since they believe that boys are not affected by any relevant cultural stereotypes or expectations that might be triggered by the different bricks. However, the researchers predicted that girls given pink bricks would be reminded of their gender and so build more girlie objects with these bricks, and that’s what happened.

Fulcher and Hayes believe this shows that while “more girl-targeted and ‘girl’-colour LEGO sets” may help attract more girls to play with LEGO, they do so at the cost of “restricting the kinds of structures and play with which they engage”. However, remembering the null effects in the first study phase, it seems they found only limited evidence to back up their concerns. And these are concerns which currently depend on a good deal of speculation – for instance, the new study doesn’t provide any direct evidence that it is at all harmful that girls are more likely to build stereotypically feminine objects with pink bricks. It also seemed an omission not to measure the boys’ and girls’ enjoyment. If girls prefer playing with girl-targeted LEGO more than other kinds, isn’t that also an important part of the equation?

Building a Pink Dinosaur: the Effects of Gendered Construction Toys on Girls’ and Boys’ Play

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

11 thoughts on “Why pink LEGO might be bad for girls (but we’re not convinced)”

  1. As an only child, (girl) my Dad was very deliberate in bringing me up in a non- gender stereotypical way. which in the 70’s and 80’s was quite radical. He taught me how to service and mend my car, took me to the scrap yard – we built a car together. We played football, went fishing and I would help with any DIY in the house and garden. My Mum taught me all the ‘nurturing’ and household skills I would need too. I clearly remember going to see father Christmas aged about 9. I made my Dad take back the doll he had given me and chose a cowboy set with cap guns instead!!! I had lego and meccano. The most important thing to me was ‘realism’ – that the toys represented in miniature the ‘real’ world. I hated pink and blue toys and would much have preferred the bricks to be less ‘childish’ and more ‘natural brick’. As a psychologist and single mother of two sons, I always thought that this ‘feminist equality’ thing completely ridiculous. Men and women are NOT the same biologically and have a long history of gender roles that have served our species and made it successful for thousands of years. In the modern world, where those gender roles are more blurred and indistinct, I think the best thing any parent can do is prepare and equip offspring with all the skills they might need so they are optimally prepared for changes in their circumstances – i.e. maximise their ‘adaptability potential’ ( McDowall, 2015). That means everyone learns how to source and cook a balanced meal, take physical and mental exercise and be active, caring, responsible custodians of this beautiful planet that we seem hell- bent on destroying.
    Helen McDowall Psychology BSc.

    1. I have to disagree with you on the ‘feminist equality thing’. You say that gender roles have served us in the past but there’s a documented history of women not having access to certain opportunities so we can’t really know whether your statement is correct. A role is exactly that, something we learn to fulfill and not necessarily an innate preference.

      1. ‘A role is exactly that, something we learn to fulfill and not necessarily an innate preference.’ Your thesis, then, would be that gendered toys somehow mould children into adults who fulfil orthodox gender roles? If that were the case, we would not have a thriving LGBT community. Or would you argue that this, too, is a cultural phenomenon?

      2. Hi Margret – my argument is that the more we make toys gender specific, the more we solidify and encourage various constructs that we prescribe as ‘male’ and ‘female’ i.e. boys play with legos because they have better spatial reasoning and girls play with barbies because they have better interpersonal skills. These concepts are arbitrary and ones that we have assigned over time, they aren’t formed from a biological disposition defined by gender but individual characteristics as you yourself point out. If those schemas are consistently endorsed, then they become harder to redefine as we progress into adulthood. I suppose ultimately I disagree with the notion of gender specific ‘roles’ being ascribed to biology and endorsed by what toys children should play with. Your brain can do many a wondrous thing and that isn’t limited to whether you’re male or female. I certainly would not say that the LGBT community is a ‘cultural phenomenon’.

  2. I agree with Helen McDowall, although my upbringing was rather different. I was brought up in a highly traditional household where my mother did the cooking and my father was the breadwinner. This was the 1950s and all little girls were bought dolls as presents. I wasn’t really interested in dolls. What I wanted was a train set and this was my favourite toy. I had a dolls’ house, too, but what interested me was its architecture and the arrangement of the rooms. Like Helen McDowall, I wanted realism and I clearly remember wanting something called a Bayco Building set which featured plastic pieces made to look like brick – nothing like the clumsy Lego blocks of today. From this, I could build houses, shops and hotels. It was wonderful.

    What made me this atypical girl in 1950s Britain? Not the influence of my parents nor even my peers. I did my own thing and I would put this down to biology. I am still doing my own thing.

  3. Thankyou Margret for sharing your growing-up experiences too. My Mum and Dad also were ‘traditional’ parents in terms of their own roles, it was just that in the absence of a male sibling and being adopted also, I think they just ‘pooled’ all their skills into their ‘only child’. I wasn’t alone in my tom-boyish slightly ‘Enid- Blyton- inspired, Famous five, Secret Seven’- type childhood. I preferred the company of boys and wanted to join the scouts because they seemed to do much more exciting things than the guides!!! BUT I also liked cooking ad sewing/ knitting/ arts and crafts. Things changed once I got to secondary school at twelve and peer pressure, what my friends thought, a behind- the- times careers adviser (options for girls, were limited to nursing, teaching, hairdressing and secretary) and hormones kicked – in. I have come to think that sexuality/gender identity is on a spectrum and that we find out own place along it throughout life and that can change with stage of development/hormonal influences as well as experiences and the toys we are exposed to. We are all at any one time the sum of everything that has happened to us, how we each perceive those experiences, how we process them and what we choose to remember or forget.
    Pink Lego in the great scheme of things, would seem to me to be relatively unimportant – neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good’ – just a poor representation of the real world – a product that is restricted to childhood by it’s very ‘unrealism’. Now if, like Hornby train sets, they chose to make more realistic – market products and dumped the ‘childish’ image, so it appeals to all ages, they might be onto a winner!!

  4. You point out that the dinosaur took longer to finish because it was more difficult, compared to the cat. Yet from my limited knowledge of buying toys for child-size members of the family, the dinosaur set would be aimed at boys and the cat one at girls. One would hope the lego team matches the complexity and intricacy of their kits which are being gendered. Our preferences for playing trains or dolls are fostered through these types of toys and we learn the gender nuances; if they were more neutral to begin with, natural inclinations could develop and be fostered by choice. For example, when the free play was allowed, the boys built ‘more stereotypically masculine objects’ but of course they would because that’s the kind of sets and objects they, presumably, have interacted with before. I think it’s too easy to brush this aside and say that you aren’t convinced by the research. It definitely requires more probing and questioning but there is a context of gender-typing to consider which is encouraged through marketing and endorsement of gender ‘norms’. It would be interesting to consider the ‘harm’ you mention as a child behaving and having preferences which are then incongruous to their peers. My perspective could also be purely generational as I remember toys being either ‘male’ or ‘female’ and have seen parents take a toy away from a child purely because that’s not what ‘boys/girls play with’.

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