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?