Using Lego figures to build recognition for great women in STEM

26 Aug 2016178 Shares

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From making Lego figures to organising Wikipedia editathons, Maia Weinstock is looking to increase female representation and challenge bias. 

How many of us – as children or adults – have spent hours building Lego towns for mini-figures to work and play in? Now, what if more of those mini-figures could represent women in leadership and scientific roles? This is something Maia Weinstock wants to make happen. The US-based science communicator has been making female Lego mini-figures, including some famous names in space science.

Space pics

Lego women

The first of what she calls her “Lego Scitweeps” was planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, who leads on imaging for the Cassini mission that is exploring Saturn.

“I made the figure as an experiment and really just as a gift to her,” explained Weinstock. “She loved it, and I decided to make more of other scientists. I eventually started giving them away to the scientists themselves whenever possible, and I continue to do that.”

Weinstock has followed developments in female representation among Lego products and has worked on a number of other projects highlighting female mini-figures.

She submitted the Legal Justice Team and The Bioneers to Lego Ideas and her most recent is Women of NASA. “This is a set highlighting five pioneers in NASA history that includes both a buildable frame displaying each of the five and also vignettes contextualising the contributions of each — Sally Ride, Margaret Hamilton, Katherine Johnson, Nancy Grace Roman, and Mae Jemison,” she explained.

The campaign (which you can follow on Twitter) recently achieved the required support of 10,000 votes for it to be considered by Lego. Welcoming the project into the ‘review’ phase, which starts in September, Lego posted a comment: “You have rocketed your way to the 10,000 supporter milestone, seemingly supported by the entire internet, and you’ve done so by educating us about these particular women’s achievements in the US space programme and STEM in general but, beyond that, showing us all that there are always plenty of very hard-working and talented individuals who go unrecognised for their accomplishments. Your individual vignettes clearly contain plenty of educational value, but bring forward a splash of humour as well, in order to make this a well-rounded set.”

Maia Weinstock, NASA Lego women

Maia with one of her Lego figures

Fascinating questions

As well as pushing the boundaries of female representation in toys, Weinstock works as a science writer, editor and media producer. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she is deputy editor at MIT News, and has also worked at children’s educational site BrainPOP, Discover, and Space.com.

“I’ve been interested in science ever since I was a little kid – I have always been fascinated by questions about how the universe came to be, why there’s something rather than nothing, how living organisms do what they do, etc.” she said. “I have a degree in human biology but I also have a strong interest in the space sciences, and in my career as a science journalist and editor I’ve learned quite a bit in those realms.”

Bias there to be challenged

What trends has Weinstock seen as an editor, regarding women in science, technology, engineering and maths? “There is certainly more of an emphasis on “women in STEM” — I don’t think the acronym STEM was even a thing when I first began as a science writer,” she said “But there remains plenty of bias — unconscious or otherwise — in how female STEM professionals are portrayed in the media.

“I think one persistent concern is that women in these fields are often hounded by questions about [being] women in their fields. I myself have been guilty of asking about this, and when you consider a man would never get that question, you do start to realise that even talking about the situation in those terms is a form of bias. But at the end of the day, I have to hope that further discussion will yield further encouragement for women to continue in these areas, and further cultural shifts that will enable women to be treated the same as men in their fields.”

‘I think one persistent concern is that women in these fields are often hounded by questions about [being] women in their fields’
– MAIA WEINSTOCK

Weinstock has also been working to increase the representation of women, both on the pages of Wikipedia and in the group of people who regularly edit the site. “I haven’t been as active this past year, but in recent years I’ve organised events called editathons to help train newcomers and to add to articles on women in fields like the sciences,” she said. “Editathons are just one way to address the relatively low percentages of women on Wikipedia and editing Wikipedia, but I think every event like this helps a little.”

Maia's Lego version of Sally Ride. Image via Flickr/PixByMaia

Maia’s Lego version of Sally Ride. Image via Flickr/PixByMaia

Find or be a champion

Her advice to young women interested in science and tech is to follow your interests and to find a champion who will help and encourage you. “That champion could be anyone — teacher, parent, friend, counsellor, or someone else — but it definitely helps to have someone in your corner, providing both positive and constructive feedback, and assuring you that you can do it,” she said.

“For adults working with girls or women in STEM, I would say: Recognise that often girls and women need extra encouragement to take part in some contest or club or project related to STEM. Ask them to participate, or suggest new avenues for them to hone their skills.”