The XX Factor

Note to Lego: Harassment Isn’t a Construction-Worker Problem

The plastic claw hands are a creepy touch.

Photo by Josh Stearns

Casual sexual harassment is a pervasive problem on streets around the world—even, apparently, on streets made out of tiny toy bricks. When journalist Josh Stearns introduced his son to the world of Lego this year, he was disappointed to find that in addition to its trademark building blocks, the company now produces a Lego-branded sticker set that articulates the innermost thoughts of its little plastic construction workers. Alongside phrases like “MEN AT WORK” and “GETTING DIRTY,” the set includes an image of a Lego worker at rest, leaning back in a hard hat and a pair of cool-dude sunglasses, shouting “HEY BABE!” at an unseen target. It’s marketed to kids aged “1 to 101.”

Since Stearns posted the sticker set on his blog, his criticism has inspired renewed commentary on Lego’s gender problem, a handful of one-star Amazon reviews, and a limp response from Lego: A company rep told Stearns his criticism had been forwarded up the line for “future evaluation of how we can deliver the best possible LEGO experience.”

Lego’s depiction of construction workers definitely has a gender problem—in addition to the cat-calling, the set reinforces the idea that the field is exclusively for “men at work!” LEGO’s bizarre occupational sticker set is also classist. The old stereotype of the construction worker lounging around and whistling at women obscures the fact that sexual harassment is a problem in all fields. I’ve been cat-called and groped by men in hard hats and guys in three-piece suits, and I’ve yet to meet a woman who hasn’t experienced a similar diversity of street harassment incidents. (I also know plenty of men who’ve been sexually harassed for just walking down the street, though their harassers generally dropped the pretense of a “compliment” and went straight for the gay-bashing.) For some reason, sexual harassment isn’t depicted in Lego sticker sets of airline pilots. (Though in one emergency worker set, a Lego fireman is labeled “Hot Stuff!”—apparently the sexualization of young children isn’t limited to products for little girls.)

This pervasive stereotype is insulting to women and contractors alike (as well as, you know, female contractors). Another gem of a sticker shows a frowning Lego construction worker announcing “JUST MY DAY JOB.” But the stereotype is pretty convenient for more culturally respected professional harassers. When we pin harassment on blue-collar workers, harassers who work in the comfort of their air-conditioned law offices (been harassed there) and government-contractor office parks (there, too) float by on the privilege of a suit and a high rung on the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, toy developers at Lego are hollering at women through stickers for kids. That future rethinking of the “best possible LEGO experience” can’t come soon enough.