Smashing gender stereotyping one lego brick at a time

There’s a serious point behind @LegoAcademics, says Donna Yates

August 15, 2014

Source: Donna Yates / @LegoAcademics

The most successful and far-reaching work of my academic career so far? Some tongue-in-cheek photographs I took of Lego.

Last Friday I was delighted when the Lego Research Institute set was delivered to my research centre at the University of Glasgow. The set was brilliantly designed by isotope geochemist Ellen Kooijman as a stand against the general pink princess bent of toys marketed to little girls. As a female academic (an archaeologist to be specific) I had been following Kooijman’s campaign closely and bought my set as soon as I could. It arrived while I was drowning in admin, partially because I was dealing with a backlog having just returned from a month of fieldwork in the Central American jungle studying antiquities trafficking, partially because I totally messed up the forms I was filling out and had to do them again. As the day wore on, the female academics in the Lego box started to mirror what the female academics were experiencing in my research centre, moving into little scenes, vignettes that I captured with my phone.

Somewhere along the way (when I had walked all the way home in the rain, discovered that I had left my keys in the office, and had to walk back, all the while with the vision in my head of being attacked by a dinosaur for not publishing enough journal papers), I figured it might be fun to put the photos on a dedicated Twitter account. By the time I went to sleep there were 2,000 followers. At the 24 hour mark there were 6,000. Now there are 16,000. Apparently my colleagues and peers around the world were all having the same sort of day I was.

I love what I do and I know the followers of @LegoAcademics do as well. Every image is built upon a profound sense of joy: I have my dream job (and so do the @LegoAcademics). Many of the images that I have put up portray normal academic concerns and experiences: little frustrations and in-jokes. Yet they are not a complaint. Far from it. They are smart people, doing smart things, facing the quibbles and quirks of academia, and they are all women.

I am extremely lucky to have the parents that I do. I told them when I was quite small that I wanted to be an archaeologist and my entire childhood was filled with encouragement and stimulation. And Lego. Lots of Lego. It was only when I started university that I realised that not all girls had been encouraged to hang out at the planetarium as a pre-teen (thanks mum and dad!), and that even in a situation where slightly more women than men were entering university, they were entering university to do very different things.

I think that we academics struggle with how to bring children into the world we love: the world of thought and experimentation. All of us are keenly aware of the systematic cultural discouragement of girls in certain fields. Every computing department that has only one female faculty member, every all-male symposium, every stat we hear about women academics not being promoted (or, worse, not seeking promotion) feels like the sad result of a string of missed opportunities, of girls who might have been brilliant world leaders in Stem subjects, but were never even given the chance to imagine such possibilities.

I think that is why the Lego Research Institute set (and, yes, the @LegoAcademics) are to appealing to those of us in research and education: we can imagine them changing how children think. We can picture little boys accepting and embracing the vision of a female scientist and we can picture little girls inspired to dream about the stars. This is what we want for our children and for all children. This is why we all rushed out and bought a set, and why it has sold out around the world.

But the fun of this set, and the fun of my Twitter feed, is tinged with a bit of melancholy. To say that the 16,000 followers of @LegoAcademics are some of the most inspiring men and women in the world is not an overstatement. Just reading their profiles is both an exciting and humbling experience, and each one of those followers knows that, ultimately, this is just one toy. That the majority of toys out there promote the message that science is for boys and that girls should focus more on vapid, shallow things. We know that one set of Lego is not going to suddenly boost the number of female undergraduates in the computing department.

The onus is on everyone, both men and women, to come up with creative and effective ways to encourage gender balance in research and academia. Right now, I’m doing it with Lego.

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