Yes, it appears to be true: there are no women, currently playing regularly, in the world’s top 100 chess players. This is just a single statistic, of course. It is devoid of any context and relates to just one sport. Even so, jaw still hits floor. And, of course, a similar — if admittedly less extreme — imbalance presents itself in many walks of life where women and men theoretically engage on something like equal terms. Though women now make up a bigger than ever proportion of senior business leaders, only eight of the CEOs in the top 100 UK companies are women. More than two-thirds of secondary school teachers are women and yet less than 40% of headteachers are women. As our blog Encouraging diversity involves doing more to challenge outdated stereotypes argued, lack of diversity is harmful and wrong, not least because it denies people the fundamental right to realise their potential. Sadly, when it comes to gender equality, as an alarming 2021 report commissioned by the Lego Group shows, there are powerful forces holding girls back. And that’s why statements like this one are so important: “The LEGO Group believes in the value of learning through play and that the development of 21st century skills from LEGO play are equally relevant to all children.”
There are many things that need to happen — both immediate and long-term — for things to improve. But one of them is that girls need to grow up surrounded by positive representations of women. Going back to chess for a moment, the English international master Jovanka Houska says that it is far more common to see women players and commentators than it was only a few years ago. “It’s very important to have that visibility,” she says. “Because if girls have role models, they can start to adjust their expectations and aims.”
There was an important change in UK advertising rules in 2019, banning adverts featuring “harmful gender stereotypes” or those which are likely to cause “serious or widespread offence”. The UK’s advertising watchdog introduced the ban because it found some portrayals could play a part in “limiting people’s potential”. The ban covers scenarios such as a man with his feet up while a woman cleans, or a woman failing to park a car.
Things are better, but progress is patchy. Despite years of campaigning, girls continue to be hugely under-represented in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — at degree level, for example. According to an analysis published of UCAS data in January 2021, 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK are women. The figures for individual subject areas are:
It isn’t altogether surprising. Frankly, many people remain wedded to outdated gender stereotypes and norms. According to a major report commissioned by the Lego Group, parents, regardless of whether they have a son, daughter, or both, are almost six times as likely to think of scientists and athletes as men than women (85% to 15%) and over eight times as likely to think of engineers as men than women (89% to 11%).
In addition, parents are almost five times as likely to encourage girls over boys to engage in dance (81% to 19%) and dress-up (83% to 17%) activities, and over three times as likely to do the same for cooking/baking (80% to 20%).
On the other hand, they are almost four times as likely to encourage boys over girls to engage in “program games” (80% to 20%) and sports (76% to 24%) and over twice as likely to do the same when it comes to coding toys (71% to 29%).
The Lego study was carried out by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in recognition of the UN’s International Day of the Girl. The institute is a non-profit research organization that researches gender representation in media and advocates for equal representation of women. The research surveyed nearly 7,000 parents and children aged 6–14 in China, the Czech Republic, Japan, Poland, Russia, UK and the USA.
It found that girls are far more open-minded than either boys or the older generation when it comes to gender expectations around creative play in childhood and future careers pathways and prospects. The study said that “general attitudes surrounding play and creative careers remain unequal and restrictive”.
Lego is the world’s largest toymaker, a family-run company founded in 1932. Its name is a contraction of two Danish words meaning ‘play well’. The company is currently running a ‘Ready for Girls’ campaign, which aims to ensure that any child, regardless of gender identity, “feels they can build anything they like, playing in a way that will help them develop and realize their unique talent.”
From STEM to art. From inventions to music. From right here to outer space. Everywhere you look, girls are using their creativity to transform and rebuild the world today. Together we can get the world ready for girls’ awesome creative power.Let’s get the world ready for girls, from the Lego website
Click the link below to go to the Lego Group website, which includes excellent content that challenges outdated gender norms, starting with a handy leaflet called 10 steps to inspire creative play.
Image at the head of this article by RAEng_Publications from Pixabay.