It is not often that a lone, 7-year-old girl can influence the strategy of the largest toy company in the world. Yet that is what seemingly happened when Charlotte Benjamin's plea to the Lego Company for more girl figurines was published and shared on Twitter.
The letter derided Lego for creating all the exciting builder kits for boys, including sets where "boys went on adventures, worked, saved people ... and even swam with sharks," while all of the female sets only had girls that "sit at home, go to the beach, and shop."
Just a few weeks after the letter went viral, Lego issued a response, stating, "We have been very focused on including more female characters and themes that invite even more girls to build." Just a few months later, the company released Research Institute, a play set created by geophysicist Ellen Kooijman.
Whether the letter directly influenced Lego (probably not) is unknown and unimportant. At the heart of this issue is the need for toys that bridge the gender gap, a topic that in my industry has generated a tremendous amount of consideration.
According to Richard Gottlieb, of Global Toy Experts, a world-renowned consultancy and resource for toy-industry insight, the shift in public opinion on the matter is clear, but companies are not seeing the light. Gottlieb polled a number of leading scholars, thinkers and industry experts about the need for more gender-neutral products in 2010, and this is what he found:
- 96 percent agreed that math and science toys can improve a child's educational success. Sets include chemistry kits, build-your-own-volcano kits and more.
- 78 percent believed that these math and science toys are not being developed and marketed to girls.
- 59 percent believed that the toys children play with have an impact on their eventual career choices.
- 83 percent believed that the packaging and color scheme of a toy will affect the likelihood that a child will play with a particular toy.
- 74 percent believed that playing with toys that foster nurturing as a child can impact one's ability to be a better parent or caregiver in life.
- 83 percent thought that there was an absence of toys that foster nurturing for boys.
- A majority agreed that math and science toys can improve a child’s educational success.
While the data clearly shows the perceived impact of specific types of toys and the influence they yield on children, large companies are very slow to incorporate the findings into product development. This would explain the overwhelmingly pink-themed girl aisles.
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This means opportunity for forward thinking entrepreneurs. Small businesses are perfect candidates for taking advantage of the void being created by the quickly changing cultural preferences, accelerated greatly by STEM promotion and young girls such as Charlotte, to create more gender-neutral products.
One shining example of a company that has done well in this void is Goldieblox, a toy company on a mission to inspire the next generation of female engineers. Goldieblox founder Debbie Sterling is a talented and intelligent young entrepreneur who, against the grain, graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and product design.
She was bothered by how few women were in her program and eventually became obsessed with the notion of "disrupting the pink aisle" with a toy that would introduce girls to the joy of engineering at a young age.
Her idea is clearly popular. Goldieblox successfully raised over $285,000 through a crowdfunding campaign and later went on to raise an undisclosed amount through angel investors. The company even won a valuable 50-second commercial spot during the Super Bowl.
Companies are catching up. Lego continues to develop toys that cross the gender gap, and even Hasbro, after another viral appeal by a 13-year-old boy, introduced a purple “Easy Bake Oven” to be less girl-focused. The progress is slow, however, and not just in toys. As our cultural continues to shift and our preferences become more refined, the question will be: Who is going to step up and fill the void?
What do you think? Are more gender neutral products needed? Do they influence your opinions of companies or how you shop? Please share your thoughts below.