International Girls in ICT day: What lego can tell us about gender equality

Sarah Atkinson
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Nuremberg Toy Fair 2014
Lego unveiled three new science figures last year - all women (Source: Getty)

Let’s hear it for Lego.

Long criticised for introducing gender stereotypical brick sets, the Danish company unveiled three new Lego science figures last year: a palaeontologist, an astronomer and a chemist.

The surprise? All three scientists were female. The plastic brick has suddenly become a symbol of gender equality.

It comes at the right time: gender stereotyping is weaved around our lives and on International Girls in ICT Day, it’s an issue we can’t ignore.

It starts early - in schools, there is a noticeably low take-up among girls of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

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A report last year by WISE found that women make up just 14.4 per cent of all people working in STEM occupations. Research firm Gartner also revealed that only 30 per cent of the people in tech firms are female, a number that has remained roughly unchanged for ten years.

Gender stereotyping, and the subsequent inequality, steps up a gear in the workplace. For evidence of this, look no further than the Cracking the Code study.

It found that a man starting at a FTSE 100 organisation is 4.5 times more likely to make it to the executive committee than a woman, while senior women are two times less likely to be promoted than their male peers.

The reasons are many and complex. Firstly, there is a relative lack of strong female role models in STEM. Men need to see women in a variety of roles as much as, or even more, than women do.

An increased number of female role models will help to tackle unconscious biases that are still prominent in society – as argued by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In among others. The more of us there are, the less we can be seen as a homogenous group.

Unconscious bias and gender stereotyping don’t necessarily mean a complete rejection of someone based on their gender; it can be much more insidious. For example, it could be manifested in the assumption that a particular gender is good at a particular skill - for example believing that all women are great at creative roles like interface design - and therefore limiting them those roles in tech, rather than hiring them as, say, coders.

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To help tackle that, schools and universities need to cultivate positive attitudes and greater understanding among under-18s, university students and women about the importance of STEM education and careers.

That involves hiring more female faculty into STEM subjects and challenging common assumptions about gender roles. Businesses also need to address these issues head on, and make sure that they are truly treating everyone the same regardless of gender.

We all have a role to play in addressing inequality. In pre-school it means talking openly about the strengths of diversity, actively encouraging boys and girls to participate in the same activities and awareness events like Girls in ICT Day. In work it means creating a work environment that supports women, and tackling the issue of unconscious bias head on – through training, awareness and setting up the right goals.