Sexist Lego a success

In spite of the uproar, the Lego Friends range is selling well

 

Earlier this year, Lego released a “Lego Friends” series that would widen the plastic blocks’ appeal to girls. Pundits bemoaned the range’s perpetuation of stale gender stereotypes, questioning whether it was really necessary to replace the traditional boxy Lego figures with curvy teenage girls that hang out in beauty parlours and cafes. Despite the controversy, Lego’s sales have increased 24 per cent year-on-year and “Lego Friends” have proved a success.

This is unsurprising considering the amount of market research that went into the range. Lego spent four years analysing girls’ playing preferences. According to Businessweek, the company found that girls paid more attention to things like aesthetics, level of detail, and role-play (this last point justifies the “Ladyfig” innovation – girls see the figurines as avatars, and are therefore, allegedly, more likely to see themselves reflected in a less angular piece of plastic). Furthermore, they found that although girls enjoyed building as much as boys, they did so in different way; while males enjoyed the more “linear” process of copying what is on the box as quickly as possible, females preferred “stopping along the way” for story telling and rearranging pieces.

The study confirms that boys and girls, at least broadly, play differently. But I suspect that the range’s success is less tied with this than with the simple fact that Lego Friends have made it more socially acceptable for girls to ask for Legos. The truth is, the brand has always done its best to fit squarely in the boys’ aisle of Toy’R’Us – since 1966, the Lego has been selling gas stations, trains and cars. Its recent makeover (side note - makeovers happen to be one of Emma’s [a Lego Friend] favourite hobbies) has made it possible for the brand to compete alongside dolls and kitchen sets. The difference between the Star Wars series and Lego Friends is, basically, a matter of packaging. But at an age where – however artificially - gender divides are at their most blatant (everyone knows that six year old boys have cooties and are to be derided for it), neither boys nor girls want to be seen wandering down each other’s aisles. Lego can't be held to blame for effectively doubling its demographic, and it is unequivocally a good thing that little girls can enjoy building blocks without feeling like a silly boy.

Or maybe kids don't actually care about these things and it's adults that find it easier to narrow their options when choosing presents. 

In any case, it’s sad that even toys are a partisan affair.  

Lego Freddie Mercury Photograph: Ghetty Images
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.