Clinton Global Initiative: Girls, Women, and Technology

May 18, 2012

Yesterday was an exciting day at AAUW headquarters. I was pleased to host the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) meeting on Girls, Women, and Technology, with women leaders from companies such as Google and Yahoo, the White House Office of Science and Technology, and other nonprofit groups. It was a privilege to address these leaders who share our vision of broadening participation for women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields — not only because women deserve the economic security of these plentiful and high-paying jobs but also because our country’s global economic standing depends on a strong STEM workforce, which needs workers regardless of their gender.

In my presentation to the group, I focused on the importance of developing girls’ spatial skills — the ability to visualize objects as they move in space — which are critical prerequisites for advanced mathematics and many STEM fields. Highly developed spatial skills are invaluable in fields such as engineering, computer science, and many medical specialties.

Show-and-tell is always a good way to teach, so I shared two toys with our guests — Lego Friends and a regular Lego set. AAUW staff purchased the toys at a local Target for about the same price, and both are targeted to children ages 6–12. But there’s a difference: One package is pink and purple, and the other is blue. When you open the box, you see another difference. The pink Lego set, obviously targeted at girls, can be built in 33 steps, most of which involve decorating a simple structure. The regular Legos, presumably designed for boys, require 87 steps to build a complex aircraft. Let me repeat these numbers: 33 steps for the girl and 87 steps for the boy. That is more than twice as many steps for boys!

We think that Lego is underestimating our girls. But, more important, the toy industry needs to understand that by failing to educate girls about spatial skills at early ages, we are potentially handicapping half of our future STEM workforce. Of course, Lego is not alone — we see gender stereotyping everywhere from the toy aisle to online gaming.

Although we haven’t solved the problem yet, this event was a starting point for future collaboration between AAUW and CGI members. Next month I will represent AAUW at the CGI-USA meeting, where I have been invited to participate in the working group on STEM education. AAUW looks forward to the challenge!

By:   |   May 18, 2012


  1. advocatepat says:

    Congratulations to Linda and staff for leading AAUW to the forefront for initiatives for women in STEM. The Why So Few? study refers to a pervasive environment which inhibits girls’ exposure to and interest in STEM opportunities. This is perpetuated from early childhood by parents, stores, advertising media, television, etc.
    I’ve been to Toys R Us and have been amazed at the stereotyped delineation among toys meant to appeal to girls and to boys. These types of sexism need to be addressed on all fronts.

  2. read4joy says:

    Thanks so much for all you’re doing to support women in STEM fields. I have two girls who always preferred playing with Legos, rather than dolls. When Legos for girls came out, we did jump on the bandwagon without paying a lot of attention. When we got them home, we realized that the purple and pink Legos were to be used to build furniture and things for the family. No robots, planes, or anything imaginative. After our daughter put the requisite girl things together, we dumped all the Legos together in one big bucket! Never did we even think about how many steps the “boys” and “girls” kits had! My youngest daughter is getting married next year, and her “theme” will be something creative using Legos!

    • Hi, there are robots and planes in Friends: Olivia’s Inventor’s Workshop, and the new SeaPlane set.
      As University women, we must understand you have to first “engage” the girls to ever get them on a path of STEM skills. Friends engages girls who otherwise would not chose to build with LEGO bricks! Shouldn’t we want something for *all* girls?
      I’d very much like to know what sets were compared in the “show & tell” session — some Friends sets have as much as 700 pieces/building steps. LEGO sets are not compared by price, yet by “piece count” since some sets of licensed themes (such as Harry Potter) may be less because they make money off license.
      Frankly, I am in shock that an organization such as AAUW isn’t 100% behind engaging girls age 5-12 in spatial play like LEGO brick manipulation with LEGO Friends. The LEGO Group is one of the world’s greatest supporters of education — for boys *and* girls!

      • Catherine Hill says:

        AAUW agrees that LEGOs are wonderful toys for both boys and girls. Our issue with LEGO Friends centers on the marketing of these toys solely to girls. The gender bias is not subtle — on the LEGO website, these toys are found in the girls’ section. In the stores, they are found in the “girls’ aisles.” The coloring of the boxes is pink and pastel, while regular LEGOs come in many hues and usually feature primary colors. LEGO is going to great lengths to separate their marketing to girls from their marketing to everyone else.

        So why doesn’t “separate but equal” work for LEGOs?

        Because regular LEGOs and girls’ LEGOs are not equal. Regular LEGOs are about building, while girl LEGOs are about decoration. The inventor’s lab that you mention is about decorating a lab. My niece and I played with it, and we enjoyed it. But it is not the same as real LEGOs, where you can actually build and invent things. If you want to actually build a robot — not just pretend to build a robot — you need real LEGOs. Usually, LEGO Friends sets require fewer steps, and the work is less complicated than with regular LEGOs. What does this say about what it means to be female? Why aren’t the girl-marketed versions as rich and complicated as the LEGOs designed for boys?

        There is nothing wrong with creating different types of toys that appeal to different children. For example, LEGO provides suggested ages, and many parents find that information useful. But we don’t want to assume that girls don’t want to invent and build or that boys won’t enjoy decorating or playing a fantasy game.

        LEGOs and other building toys are especially valuable because they help children learn spatial skills and strengthen their mathematical skills. AAUW encourages parents to help their children develop strong spatial skills through playing with creative toys, including blocks. We also tell parents to encourage pretend play and artistic expression.

        We compared the LEGO Friends Heartlake Vet set, available in the girls’ aisle at Target and the girls’ section of the LEGO website, with the Heavy-Lift Helicopter set available in the boys’ aisle at Target and on the LEGO website. We chose these sets because they were about the same price and were designed for the same age range (6–12). Both sets are fun and engaging. But we ask LEGOs to consider how it might better market these toys without appealing to sex stereotyping.

        Catherine Hill, AAUW Director of Research

  3. Fiona MacDonald (@fionamacd) says:

    Yes, looking at the toy store in my occasional visit I always am amazed at the ‘pink doll’ rows and then the far more interesting robot war rows! I always preferred Action Man as a kid cause he had gripping hands – so he was useful. Barbie just sat at base camp looking bored! I’m sure even the ‘girl’ toys could be made more interesting too, but that would require women in jobs designing toys for companies that would take a risk and market differently.

  4. Barbara says:

    Legos’ market research demonstrated that most girls were not purchasing traditional Legos products. Having captured the boys’ market, the Legos team revamped their product for girls after conducting additional market research. The initial product launch was not as successful as hoped for and the product was discontinued. The more recent product was modified and purchasing-response improved.

    Research indicates that gender-based choices exist between boys and girls. Having product choice is a good thing: girls who prefer architectural legos can play with them; girls who prefer dolls and pastel colors can play with domestic legos. Clearly, the stereotypical message isn’t being dictated by the company; rather, not every girl wants to play with traditional building materials.

    • I believe it is a lot easier than LEGO thinks to market their product to girls. Hermione Granger and Wonder Woman are a great start. My daughter loved those sets. A couple of years ago the fire station won all sorts of awards, so I bought that set for her. She didn’t love it until I purchased enough pony tails to turn all the firemen into fire fighters. 🙂 Right next to our fire station we have a police station. We even have an emergency helicopter, but we need a hospital. PlayMobile has a great hospital. I wish Lego had one and a school and a farm with horses. Those are the sets my 9-year-old is interested in. She loved the Belville sets when she was younger, but she is past her “Barbie-stage.”

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