A woman wearing a microphone headset announced to people milling about the exhibit area that the next Master Builder competition would begin in a few minutes. She reminded the group that she would need two volunteers to serve as competitors in the challenge. I knew that my six-year-old nephew’s hand would shoot into the air, eager for the chance to show off his self-proclaimed Master Builder skills. As I expected, he was picked to compete against Louisa, a girl similar in age. The two were issued the challenge of building something that would help scientists study animals under the sea. The clock started ticking as both children began rummaging through the boxes of Lego, looking for the perfect pieces for their creation. At the end of their timed competition, the competitors named and explained their pieces.
The audience was asked to vote on the two pieces. We could hold up one finger to vote for the piece’s aesthetic, two to vote for the innovation, and three to vote for the overall design. The audience overwhelmingly voted for my nephew’s innovation. The woman from the museum handed him a Master Builder sticker, which he immediately plastered to the front of his shirt. Louisa’s piece was up next for voting. Apparently only one piece could be acknowledged for innovation because that was no longer an option for the audience. Instead, we were only allowed to vote for Louisa’s piece’s design or aesthetic, which the woman from the museum led the audience to vote for with a comment about how colorful the piece was.
“I saw a lot pretty colors in there, Louisa! Are those your favorite colors?” she asked, and Louisa nodded along. She, too, was handed a Master Builder sticker and happily left the stage to return to her family.
But I wasn’t happy. Standing behind the rest of the audience, I was upset about how the stereotypes and expectations of gender were being reinforced in an exhibit that was intended to empower young minds to consider the idea of building the future, to relate structure and architecture to the simple plastic blocks they already know. Further, we were in a museum dedicated to the idea of science and innovation, a space where there are already too few women’s faces and names being celebrated. When presented with an opportunity to strengthen a girl’s interest in science, her efforts were instead reduced to acknowledging the color of the plastic bricks she picked. And I was equally frustrated that my nephews – and other children in the audience – were having these messages delivered to them too.
Why couldn’t both pieces be acknowledged for their innovation? My nephew’s had a wheel on it to make it easier to roam the ocean floor. Louisa’s had a viewing tower so animals could be observed at different levels within the craft. Those are both thoughtful, well-planned innovations.
We’ve all seen the 1981 ad from Lego with Rachel Giordano proudly displaying her own Lego creation and the updated version where Giordano, now a physician, is holding one of the Lego Friends kits. Giordano partially credits her original interest in Lego with her successful career as a doctor – for giving her the opportunity to create, innovate, and take ownership of her projects.
Today is Equal Pay Day, the day to which white women have to work in 2016 to match what their male counterparts made in 2015. Over the course of Louisa’s life, she will be underpaid. Her ideas will be squashed at board room tables. She will not be given ample credit for the work she does. As we continue the fight for equal pay, we must also continue the fight against the messages that teach girls this kind of disparity is okay. Further, we must educate those who work with girls about how damaging their comments can be and how those messages are internalized. I’ve shared my experience with the museum’s staff because I’m hopeful they can educate their staff members and recognize the power and influence they have every time they interact with a group of children.
For more information about Equal Pay Day, click here.