Lego is removing gender bias from toys

Nurses for girls and firemen for boys? No longer - at least not in the Lego world. The world's biggest toymaker this week announced that it is working to remove gender stereotyping from its brand.

It will no longer market its products distinctly to boys or girls, and will look to ensure all its products are gender-neutral. "We're working hard to make Lego more inclusive," said Julia Goldin, the chief product and marketing officer at the Lego Group. The decision comes in response to research the Danish firm commissioned which found that while girls were eager to engage with "male" toys, the reverse was not true for boys.

The survey of nearly 7,000 parents and children across seven countries revealed that 71 per cent of boys were worried about being judged or made fun of for playing with toys gendered for girls. Parents were just as anxious, with 54 per cent sharing the same worry as their sons. However, only 26 per cent of parents worried about their daughters being made fun of for playing with toys gendered for boys.

Mattel's Creatable World dolls come with clothing options, accessories and wigs to allow children to style the doll with short or long hair, or in a skirt, trousers or both. (Photo: Mattel/PA)

Lego is not the first toy manufacturer to make such changes. In 2019, the American multinational Mattel - behind the Barbie and GI Joe dolls - announced the release of Creatable World, its first series of gender-neutral dolls.

Unlike its gendered toys, these dolls are a blank slate without the usual tiny waist, full hips, long lashes and dazzling smile seen on their Barbies, or the broad-shoulders and big biceps of GI Joes. And in February, Hasbro turned Mr Potato Head gender-neutral by dropping his masculine honorific. The change sparked debate on social media, with many saying the toy company had bent to the "woke brigade" by changing a cultural icon that has been on toy shelves since 1952.

Hasbro insisted that the gender-neutral name was a result of changing societal roles. But when did toys become so controversial?

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At the start of the 20th century, toys were rarely marketed to different genders. It was not until the 40s that manufacturers caught on to the idea that wealthier families would buy an entirely new set of clothing, toys and other gadgets if the products were marketed differently.

And so the idea of pink for girls and blue for boys was born. In a society in which obvious progress is being made towards gender equality in many spheres, with more women becoming chief executives and more men taking on a greater share of childcare, the rigid gender divide for children can seem jarring. And indeed, Laura Coffey-Glover, senior lecturer in linguistics at Nottingham Trent University, says that it is the gender stereotypes encouraged by toys that are more damaging than the colour-coding.

"You will often find that toys marketed at young girls emphasise domesticity, caring roles or a concern with beauty, whereas toys for boys are more likely to emphasise 'useful' roles that involve danger and adventure," she says. Thus we have had Cabbage Patch Kids, Barbies and Suzy Homemakers for girls, and Action Man, Hot Wheels and a menagerie of guns for boys. "These segregated roles are also reflected in the words used to market these toys, such as 'best', 'fastest' and 'strongest' for boys' products, and 'glitter' or 'sparkle' for girls," says Dr Glover-Coffey. "This sends messages to parents and children about what toys are appropriate for your gender, as well as what roles in society girls and boys should grow up to have."

Lego is removing gender bias from toys In February Hasbro announced that it was dropping the 'Mr' from the Potato Head brand (Photo: Hasbro/AP)

A US study by the University of Wyoming and Vanderbilt University last year revealed just how early gender stereotyping begins. It found that preschool children (particularly boys) believe men earn more than women.

They also viewed men as more competent in stereotypically masculine occupations, and rated women as more competent than men in stereotypically feminine occupations. This is where the problem lies, says Dr Jelke Boesten, an expert in gender and development at King's College, London. "Children learn to interpret the world from a very young age and, among other things, toys tell them about norms, which roles are appropriate, and for whom," she says.

"Girls' toys teach that certain professions are for boys, and boys quickly learn that they shouldn't like what girls like, that it is bad for them and feminises them, and feminisation is bad. It contributes to the idea that being a woman is not good enough, and that boys are superior." Can a gender-neutral Lego piece or Potato Head really change the way we think about gender?

"We are still far removed from a world without stereotypes, but it is good that such a big toy company is taking the lead in contributing to change," says Dr Boesten. "If you do not tell children that dolls are for girls and tools are for boys, they will play with whatever they fancy. "The cue also comes from those adults who pull a face when a boy is drawn to the friendship section in the shop, or a girl wants a big truck.

"If you eliminate those messages from the toys, then children will have the freedom again to choose to play with what they like, instead of what they think is expected from them. It will stimulate play and creativity, and, importantly, reduce stigma embedded in these gendered stereotypes." Further change is coming not just in how toys are made, but also how they are sold.

This week, California became the first US state to require large retailers to display toys and childcare items in gender-neutral ways.

It is one more step towards obliterating gender stereotypes, and a demonstration that toys are toys - with no need for a pink-blue divide.