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Joanna Weiss

For girls, a path blocked by Lego toys

Frilly Legos won’t encourage girls to enter scientific careers

(Rex Features via AP Images)

THIS WINTER, Lego, the toy company that has inspired many an engineer, unveiled a line of blocks called Lego Friends, aimed specifically at girls. The bricks come in pastel colors, the figurines go to beauty shops, and the concept is straight out of market research. Lego executives say girls play differently from boys. They don’t want to build complex fighter jets like the ones on the cover of the Lego Star Wars boxes. They want to tell stories, instead.

I have no doubt that girls in focus groups were interested in putting little Lego flowers on little Lego treehouses. But that’s not the whole story; figuring out what girls want is a matter of asking the right questions. A year ago, when the Girl Scout Research Institute embarked on a study of girls, math, and science, researchers expected to find a Lego Friends sort of world: girls drawn to cute and pretty stuff, who didn’t aspire to careers in science. Instead, the study’s results, which are being released today, upend those old assumptions.

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It turns out, fully 74 percent of girls — and even higher percentages of African-American and Hispanic girls — say they’re interested in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, math, and engineering. The trick is to break professions into their component parts. Girls who are interested in STEM want to know how things work. They like solving puzzles and problems. They want to understand the natural world.

The hard part is making the conversion from childhood interest into grown-up careers. Today, women are well-represented in medicine, but they earn only 20 percent of bachelors degrees in engineering, computer science, and physics. Only a quarter of the jobs in STEM fields nationwide — and 11 percent of engineering jobs — are held by women. And the Girl Scouts study found that only 13 percent of girls who like math and science say a STEM career is their first choice.

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In part, that’s because of a dearth of role models, said Kamla Modi, an author of the Girl Scouts study, named Generation Stem. Nearly half of all girls say they would feel uncomfortable being the only girl in a group or a class, the study found. And lack of women in the field reinforces the perception — and, sometimes, the reality — that science is incompatible with family life.

In the meantime, Modi said, girls’ natural interest in science isn’t always channeled or encouraged; girls do fewer hands-on science projects in school over the years, encounter more gender stereotypes and less synthesis. One girl told researchers that her teacher had said engineering was for boys, and girls should prepare for careers in fashion and design.

Set aside the sexism of that statement, and consider the missed opportunity. An interest in fashion could easily be a gateway to engineering, just like an interest in baking can lead to an interest in math. The Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts pairs with MIT each year for a space-exploration workshop for teen girls; among other projects, they design stylish astronaut outfits from high-tech fabrics. Is that succumbing to gender stereotypes, or simply finding another way in?

In other words, the trouble isn’t girl-themed toys, but what girl-themed toys ask girls to do. Salem State University professor Rebecca Hains, who studies girls and media, recently dug up a 1990s “Saturday Night Live’’ parody of a game called “Chess for Girls,’’ which showed girls cradling pink bishops and rooks as if they were baby dolls.

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It reminded her of Lego Friends. Objections to the line have often focused on the gender stereotypes associated with pink blocks and Lego flowers. But whether girls want to play with pastels or pretty clothes is really beside the point. The real objection to Lego Friends is that the kits seem oversimplified. Storytelling has replaced problem-solving, instead of accompanying it.

If Lego really wants to get girls excited, maybe it should give them a tougher challenge, instead: a pink floral space-exploration kit that’s harder and more complex than the one the boys get. If you give girls problems to solve — whether or not they involve flowers or small animals — they’ll be inclined to solve them. As girls, and as adults.


Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.