What could sound more attractive than a primary school where children learn through interactive play? This is the idea behind a recently-announced school in Denmark, a so-called 'Lego School', where boundless piles of Lego will be available alongside more traditional tools of education to stimulate children to 'learn how to think'. It sounds wonderful. But.....there is always a but. Lego's attitude towards children's learning is not entirely spotless. Indeed, perhaps its failings could be summed up by pointing to the word 'pink'. The company has fallen foul of the pinkification of toys, the inherent gendering (in various forms) that has got other companies into hot water recently.
When I was growing up, Lego bricks came in primary colours and no one told me I couldn't build a garage, a rocket, a pirate ship or whatever took my fancy. Although the choice of bricks back then was severely limited, my imagination did not have to be. Now it seems to be the norm to split the building sets Lego market into those deemed appropriate for boys and those for girls. A line of kits marketed at girls called Lego Friends was unveiled a couple of years ago, with much that was pink in evidence and with advertising consistent with the idea that young girls want to go shopping, go to the hairdresser and dream of becoming vets. None of those things in themself is a problem, as long as they are also allowed to consider becoming a rocket scientist, perhaps with a passing interest in pirates or going to a football match. In other words the world should be their oyster, not some type of old-fashioned stereotyped and segregated world in which the dreams of young girls are limited to a 1950s vision of appropriate behaviour.
Lego are not the only company who have been guilty of such toy gendering, although often the problems lie as much in the marketing as in the manufacturer. Last year Hamley's became the subject of a campaign calling upon it to change the layout of its shops to stop the gender split of its displays and, after a while, it did change its signage. Just last week Boots was on the receiving end of complaints about the fact that it displayed toys produced by the Science Museum under the heading of 'boys'. Boots fairly rapidly backtracked under pressure both from parents and the Science Museum itself (I should declare I am one of their Trustees). Meanwhile Tesco's are sticking to their view that chemistry sets should be marketed as only for boys, but (un)helpfully say they will carry out more 'research later in the year' about this.
I doubt Tesco's research is likely to go much beyond what works in terms of their sales. Will it consider the potential societal consequences of hindering equal development of boys' and girls' minds? As a relative rarity, a female physicist, and as one of the bunch of women shortlisted for the First Women Awards, run in association with Lloyds Banking Group, designed to recognise pioneering UK women who have opened up opportunities for others, I can only be appalled by such narrow-minded stereotyping. Limiting options for girls, limiting their opportunities to learn through play explicitly including play that can extend to science-based toys, means that we are losing potential scientific talent for the future. There is plenty of evidence to show that a sense of identity driven by societal expectations sets in young. Making it difficult for girls to play with more technical toys, just as much as making it difficult for boys to aspire to become vets, is not only completely unnecessary but bad for society. Pink never used to be the colour associated with girls (indeed, until about the 1930s it was seen as rather manly as simply a paler version of the 'strong' colour red), but by colour-coding and segregating toy displays, we are short-changing our children of both sexes.
As a child, no one stopped my imagination running riot in any direction I wanted; Lego was still limited in range, as a rather new toy, but not limited by gendering. As a society we should be resolute in our efforts to put pressure on manufacturers and shop chains - for instance, by backing the Let Toys be Toys online petition - to stop this ongoing cultural divide, splitting our children into such crude categories. If girls want to dress up in pink and play with Barbies and teasets that's great. But if boys want to make the tea too - why not? Equally girls should be exposed to both chemistry and hairdressing as possible future career options; allowed to build rockets and pirate ships not just to play passively by 'visiting' a café or veterinary surgery. If we don't counter these trends, which appear to be increasing not decreasing, the next generation of young women will not have the confidence to be trailblazers in new areas; they will stay safely in traditional spheres, those deemed appropriate by our toy manufactures. What a gloomy future.
Athene Donald is shortlisted for the 2013 First Women Awards.
The awards ceremony will take place on Wednesday 12 June and is hosted by Real Business in association with Lloyds Banking Group.