Beyond Pink and Blue

Raising Children With Science Instead of Stereotypes

"Lipstick" Legos May Actually Reduce the Gender Gap

Despite the stereotypes, the new girly Legos help girls improve spatial skills.

I am a bit of an eye roller. And maybe, on a rare occasion, just a little bit quick to judge.  I don’t mean to be judgmental, but sometimes I have a visceral reaction that is hard to quiet.  Often, my husband can hear my judgment from the next toy aisle over as I groan, perhaps a little too loudly, “VOM-IT!”  (My husband might also say I am a little overly dramatic).

I admit that was my reaction when I first saw the Beauty Shop Legos Friends marketed to girls, with the purple box and the “friend” Emma, who just loves to "shop for lipstick". 

Not being a girly-girl myself, and being a developmental psychologist who studies gender stereotypes, I had the same reaction felt by many of my like-minded feminists. Here we go again, more gender stereotypes that I have to battle against.  But recently, I have back-pedaled from my initial threat to puke at ToysRUs.  Maybe it is Christmas spirit. Or maybe it is trying to figure out what I can add to my “approved toys” list for the grandparents.   

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The reason for my about-face is in part based on some recent research in the journal Child Development that tested the assumption that boys were biologically better than girls at spatial abilities. This is one math-based skill that does show a gender difference, and the only one not taught in schools. Boys and girls typically get significant differences in how much they practice this skill. The researchers taught first grade boys and girls to visualize shapes in multiple ways. For example, the kids thought about the object below as: a hexagon with an X, bow ties, 2 kites of diamonds, and an open envelope.

Guess what? After several of these training sessions, the gender gap in spatial abilities completely

disappeared. Their conclusions: girls just have less experience with spatial tasks than boys. With the same amount of practice that boys get in their regular lives, girls do just as well. The researchers mentioned Lego play as one of the ways boys practice these skills. So, come to find out, Lego play can help girls bridge this big gender gap in cognitive abilities.

And indeed, the girl-marketed Legos have been hugely successful. Apparently, sales far outpaced even what Legos expected. So it seems that girls weren’t playing with Legos before, and now with the Café and Beauty Shop kits, they are. I came to realize that maybe girly Legos are the “gateway” toy for girls. As much as I hate to admit it, for the girl who plays with Barbie and American Girl dolls, and has her room painted pink with a princess theme, she may have needed the goal of lipstick shopping to realize that construction toys are actually fun. She needed an opening, a point of entrance. Girls aren’t going to go from cosmetics to construction overnight. They needed something in their familiar pastels with a friendship theme.

And again, the point is that these kinds of construction toys are good for girls’ cognitive development. So, if pink Legos help girls get involved, more power to them. Even if I have to stifle my gag reflex at all the stereotypes. 

Maybe, in fact, boys’ toys should take a similar approach. We should think about what skills girls are good at that would be helpful for boys to develop. Maybe diaries, that help chidlren develop writing skills and emotional expression, with a Star Wars battle scene on the cover. Or friendship bracelet kits, that help foster kindness for friends, in black and gray or sports teams colors. Maybe the concept of “gateway” toys, toys that help one gender play just a little more like the other group, even it captures some of the stereotypes, would help us bridge some of our gaps. As they say, perhaps perfect shouldn't be the enemy of the good. Girls better learning spatial skills is good, even if the packaging isn't perfect.  

Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Kentucky, where she studies the effects of gender stereotypes among children and adolescents. more...

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