Inside the Collection

Shifting the balance

Female Scientist Lego display
‘Research Institute’ Lego figures: an astronomer, a chemist and a palaeontologist. MAAS Collection, 2018/47/2. Image: Michael Myers, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

The Museum has so many wonderful toys in the collection. Looking through the collection online is a journey filled with memories, delightful surprises and the occasional stuff of nightmares.

Toys send strong messages to kids about what they should be interested in and what they can aspire to. They provide an interesting opportunity to track and reflect on the values and attitudes of the wider world in which they’re created.

Two new additions to the MAAS toy collection help mark a shift in the visibility and acceptance of women working in STEM professions (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)*.

Over the last decade in particular, there has been a shift in the willingness to recognise, acknowledge and even <gasp> encourage girls and women to work in non-traditional roles.

The ‘Research Institute’ Lego set features an astronomer, a chemist and a palaeontologist and represents Lego’s first set of female characters in professional settings rather than in frilly dresses partying or at play.

These sets were produced as a limited release only through the LEGO Ideas initiative, a website that crowdsources ideas for new Lego sets from fans worldwide. Using this online platform, anyone can present a project idea and if it gets 10,000 supporters, it is reviewed by the Lego Ideas team, who select projects for production.

When I first read about it this set I was excited. Growing up as a total science enthusiast, I would have loved these toys. That excitement was tempered when the box arrived, and I opened it up. Looking at the figures, my stomach sank a little. They were all wearing lipstick (because how could we possibly tell they were girls without lipstick?!), some had eyelashes or beauty spots (oh for goodness’ sake), and, most alarmingly, they had expressions that could be best described as angry, fearful and concerned.

Photograph of Lego head stacks
Front and back face options of the Lego heads sent with the first set of professional female Lego characters. These are all the heads I rejected. Image: Tilly Boleyn, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Umm oh dear. Really Lego, those are the faces you’ve chosen for the first professional women minifigs? I wrote to Lego’s customer service address to request a new set of heads, explaining that these figures would be kept in a Museum as an example of the increased acknowledgement of women working in STEM. And that the heads I had received, hopefully entirely accidentally, seemed to perpetuate misconceptions about women’s abilities in STEM subjects.

Lego customer service apologised and sent me four new heads. Two of them still angry. Sigh. I made a tough choice and now the palaeontologist is slightly concerned. Two steps forward, one step back.

Four Lego figurines of real women who contributed to NASA
‘Women of NASA’ set highlights four extraordinarily smart and talented people within their professional settings. MAAS collection, 2018/47/1. Image: Michael Myers, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

The second new Lego set in the collection depicts four women who made outstanding contributions to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in the USA. The initial release sold out in less than a day.

These figures represent computer scientist and entrepreneur Margaret Hamilton; astronomer and executive Nancy Grace Roman; astronaut, physicist and entrepreneur Sally Ride; and astronaut, physician and engineer Mae Jemison. All four women persevered through challenging times, institutions and media landscapes that often focused on their gender and their position as the “First woman to…”. Their work helped to begin changing entrenched attitudes at NASA and beyond.

Toys such as these are especially valuable because they are evidence of an increasingly widespread promotion and encouragement of women in STEM. However, the fact that showing women in STEM professions is still somewhat of a novelty in 2018 speaks volumes about how far there is to go to reach gender equity in the field.

Still, an important first step is to have conversations about systemic problems regarding how we speak to, and about, women and girls. Only then can we begin to change our society’s unconscious bias (or sometimes completely conscious bias) about the value and contribution of women.

Written by Tilly Boleyn
Curator, science, health and medicine
August 2018


* Fun fact: Humans never seem to just agree on one acronym. There are other acronyms commonly used, including: STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine), STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths), and STEM* (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and anything else!).

One response to “Shifting the balance

  • Thanks Tilly, this article and the project are great. I especially like that you contacted Lego about the inappropriate facial expressions of the scientists. Hopefully your comments were taken on board.

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