For most of us, there’s a gradual transition in life where Legos go from being a toy of limitless imagination to pieces of plastic that have the ability to inflict monstrous pain on the sucker that steps on one barefoot. Maia Weinstock was no exception. As a child of the ‘80s, she grew up playing with the OG Lego sets, but they were relegated to the days of childhood as Maia moved through school with an expansive interest in the sciences. After finishing her undergrad at Brown University, she landed a job working for Science World, a kids’ science magazine at Scholastic, where Maia discovered one of the perks of being a journalist: you get to be a little bit of an expert at a lot of things. Maia has since been able to pursue her varied interests in the sciences by writing about them, and she currently works as the deputy editor of MIT News.
But most recently, you might have seen her in the news at places like The New York Times, Slate and The Huffington Post as the force behind the proposed Women of NASA Lego set. Made up of five female aeronautics pioneers—Margaret Hamilton, who developed on-flight software for the Apollo missions to the moon; Katherine Johnson, a researcher known for her work on the Mercury and Apollo programs; Sally Ride, who was the first woman in space in 1983; Nancy Grace Roman, one of the first female execs at NASA and an integral part of the development of the Hubble telescope; and Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space in 1992—the set has clearly struck a chord with many: As of the publication of this interview, the proposal reached the 10,000-signature threshold in two weeks.
And even prior to this, Maia was on the forefront of massively appealing Lego sets that speak to the company’s oft-discussed gender gap with the Legal Justice League, featuring the four female SCOTUS judges, which likewise received a ton of press from places like NPR, MSNBC, Newsweek and TIME, and an outpouring of public support. Unfortunately, Lego denied the proposal after just five days, citing their policy of being politics-neutral.
We chatted with Maia recently on where the idea to create women-centric Lego sets came from, the youth gender gap in the sciences, and the possibility of a future as Chief Designer of Awesome Women for Lego.
So, Legos. Can you walk us through where and when this all started?
As a kid growing up the ‘80s, I was into Legos, sure. But after I got a little older, I didn’t continue that interest. I really only started doing it six years ago. I was working on an animated movie about Ada Lovelace, who is considered to be the first computer programmer, and I came across someone who had made a Lego of her and a bunch of other historic figures. And I thought, “This is awesome! Wouldn’t it be cool to do current scientists?” Because so few people can actually name living scientists, and if they do it’s one of like, three people.
[Laughs] So I decided to make one for my friend Caroline Porco, who is a planetary scientist; she runs the imaging team on the Cassini mission to Saturn. It was just an experiment. I didn’t know what would come of it, but I figured out how to find all the parts and put them together. I actually tried to give her an outfit that was similar to the one she wore during her TED talk. I gave it to her, and she really liked it, so then I decided to make a few more of other scientists, and you know, this is just how it started to take off. I originally only did them for people who were on Twitter, because I wanted to connect the images that I made to people’s profiles as another way to say, like, “These are awesome people doing amazing things in science. You can get to know them on Twitter!”
It was a way to try and sort of humanize the science. And at a certain point I started actually meeting up with the scientists in person to give it to them, and that became a lot of fun, because I was like Santa Claus. I made grown men and women like, squee, basically! [laughs].
Right out of the gate, the reception for the NASA set was really strong, and though it was short-lived, there was a similarly enthusiastic response to the female SCOTUS set. Did you anticipate such strong support?
Well I certainly hoped it would go that way! [laughs] For the NASA set, I was really hopeful, because it touches on so many things that people really love: you have the space theme, with NASA in particular; the history of science; women in science; and of course, Legos. So I think you put all those things together and they tend to do pretty well! But I really didn’t know. The day I submitted it I was like, “Well, maybe I’ll get a hundred votes and it’ll fade into oblivion.”
Considering all the press you’ve gotten, seems like they should just offer you a job as a designer, no?! Your ideas obviously really resonate. Is that something you would consider?
[laughs] I’d certainly think about it! It’d be a lot of fun to work for Lego. I’m also really happy where I am at MIT, though.
Lego has actually been the topic of a lot of conversation in terms of the way it is and always has been geared toward boys. In 2008, Lego embarked on a study of 4,500 mothers and daughters to find out how they could better market to girls, and what came out of it was LEGO Friends, which ended up being a lot of pink, hearts, cupcakes, etc. Critics assert that this reinforces gender stereotypes and that girls are getting a dumbed-down version of a toy that has always been revered for its focus on building and creativity. Thoughts?
You know, I had originally criticized it for a lot of those same reasons. And that girls were getting this separate world, and it makes girls not a part of the main playing experience. But you know, I think there are some very cool sets within Friends that are science based, or sets that encourage kids to do more cerebral thinking. And then there are the other ones that are like, baking—stuff that’s a little more traditional. It is what it is. I’m actually more interested in improving and changing what we’re seeing in the other areas—the quote-unquote everyday-life Lego. Like the fact that there aren’t that many females in a lot of the sets is actually starting to change. And a lot of the people that have been talking about it online have made a big difference! And people do get excited about a set like mine, or the research institute set that came through a couple of years ago. So I do think things are changing for the better. I think Lego is receptive to some of these changes, and that’s to their credit.
Any advice you can offer to girls looking to pursue a career in the sciences?
To the girls, I would say that if you’re interested in something, go find a club or a teacher or a parent—someone who will mentor you and get excited about it. And then my advice for parents and teachers and mentors would be to encourage them more. I think girls are naturally curious just like boys are, but a lot of times their curiosity gets dampened a bit by even just an offhanded remark that’s not meant to be discouraging. It’s been shown that girls and young women need a little more prodding and direct encouragement to get involved in various activities, whether it’s science or technology or math fields. You have to put yourself out there, but it’s important a support system is in place, too.
Now that the project has received 10,000 signatures of support, an official announcement of whether Lego will produce the Women in NASA set will be made in January. Stay tuned!
Interview by Deena Drewis