Lego's new female scientist is a first for toy company

More than six decades after Lego began producing toys, the company has unveiled a female scientist minifigure.

About six decades after Lego began making toys, the company has begun selling a female scientist minifigure.

Some 64 years after the Lego first began manufacturing toys, the company unveiled this week a first: a female scientist minifigure.

The minifigure, identified on her nametag as a professor, is Lego’s first female lab-coated scientist and steps into what has often been fingered as a major gap in the toy company’s lineup of toys. While LEGO has a small roster of women minifigures in the sciences, including a female astronaut and surgeon, miniature male scientists and engineers still far outnumber their female counterparts in Lego’s product line.

And that’s a workforce portrait mirrored in the full-size world.

Even as women earn some 60 percent of all BAs, women remain underrepresented in science and engineering majors, according to the National Science Foundation. In 2010, women received about 18 percent of all computer science and engineering BAs presented in the US, as well as about 40 percent of all mathematics and physical sciences BAs.

And the statistics become more alarming in the workforce, where women represent about 11 percent of all American engineers, about 25 percent of all computer scientists, and about 40 percent of physical scientists. Female scientists and engineers, regardless of degree or age, also never match their male counterparts in salary: women employed full time in science and engineering professions average about $17,000 less in earnings than men.

In large part, researchers have identified a subtle but persistent cultural bias as behind the disparities in representation in earnings. In 1997, the Swedish Medical Research Council (MRC)  found that women had to be about 2.2 times more productive than their male counterparts to be as successful in winning research awards. The researchers portrayed the slights less as outright distain for and discrimination against women and more as an unnoticed but insidious belief that women’s brains are not quite as mathematically adroit as men’s brains.

And in 15 years, little has changed: last year, a Yale research team showed that substituting a female name for a male name on a scientists resume significantly dropped hiring universities’ esteem for that scientist. Faculty at participating schools rated “John” as significantly more competent and hirable than “Jennifer” – as well as worthy of a higher starting salary – even though the man and the woman had identical resumes. A similar research project from 2010 also found that graduate students rated male scientists' research papers as more rigorous, influential, and innovative than those from female scientists. No wonder that almost half of women in the sciences, bristling after years of passed promotions and low salaries, will quit their jobs before retirement.

That same quiet bias that pervades hiring and awards committees could also be what keeps women from even applying to those jobs or enrolling in science and math courses. Women, studies have suggested, often do not believe that women are good at math, and women who do not believe that women are good at math will meet those low expectations for themselves. Research has shown that girls perform worse on math exams if reminded beforehand that girls aren’t good with numbers. Other studies have also suggested that women graduates with science degrees lack confidence in their own skills and demure in applying to the science and engineering jobs to which male candidates apply in droves.

So, to combat a subtle problem, advocates have encouraged a subtle solution: putting toys on the shelves that normalize that idea that women belong in the sciences.

“The brilliant Scientist’s specialty is finding new and interesting ways to combine things together,” according to Lego's website. The woman, wearing a lab coat and holding two gem-colored flasks, is also a “Nobrick Prize” winner and boasts an impressive record in biomedical engineering – or, in helping “minifigures that have misplaced their legs” get new, weird limbs.

At the moment, Lego is also reviewing a set of female scientists minifigures as part of its CUUSOO competition, a wing of its operations that allows the public to suggest new product designs. The creator, who identifies herself as a female geochemist, has proposed a line of minifigures that includes a female paleontologist, chemist, geologist, bioengineer, and astronomer.

“I have designed some professional female minifigures that also show that girls can become anything they want,” she writes.

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