It was the poet Maya Angelou who said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” But for many girls, that boundless supply of imagination winds up trapped behind a dam of self-doubt.

Girls as young as age 5 say that the pressure for perfection limits their creative confidence. And adults might be unaware of how casually they can instill a fear of failure: 71 percent of girls say our everyday language makes them worry about making mistakes.

Those startling numbers come from a new global study from the LEGO Group, which reveals girls feel intense pressure to be perfect and believe adults give boys more recognition for their creative work. The study, released on March 5, sounded the alarm for urgent change considering that three-quarters of girls aspire to work in creative industries.

“By creating a dialogue in society,” said Alero Akuya, the Vice President of Global Brand Development at the LEGO Group, “we can begin to create the change we want to see.”

The LEGO Group has partnered with the Geena Davis Institute since 2021 on equitable representation of girls and women through research and consulting as well as the publication of the 2021 LEGO Ready for Girls Creativity Study which explored whether and how creativity is gendered.

Akuya spoke with the Geena Davis Institute recently about the study and how grown-ups can do a better job of helping girls flourish. Among the study’s unsettling data is that girls as young as 5 feel confident in their creativity (76 percent) but that number declines as the girls get older due to the pressure of perfection. It seems that societal factors conspire to dim their creative spark.

Ayuka, in her role at the LEGO Group, focuses on storytelling and digital engagement. She’s also a driving force for equitable pay and pioneered the LEGO brand’s first-ever girls brand campaign – Play Unstoppable.

So she knows this phenomenon well.

“As girls progress from early childhood to adolescence, various factors contribute to their diminishing confidence in their creative abilities,” Akuya said. “As girls grow older, they often become more aware of societal expectations and stereotypes regarding gender roles and may feel pressure to conform.”

For this study, the LEGO Group surveyed more than 61,500 parents and children aged 5-12 years old across 36 countries. As it turned out, adults already sense the burden of perfectionism being placed on girls. Parents acknowledged the struggle, with 71 percent saying girls are more likely than boys to hold back on developing their ideas because of these pressures.

The data also reveals that more than half of children believe adults listen more to boys’ creative ideas than those of girls. As for the parents, 68 percent agree that society takes male creatives more seriously than females. This is a core concern of the Geena Davis Institute, which works to mitigate unconscious bias while creating equity, fostering inclusion, and reducing negative stereotyping in entertainment and media.

The good news is that the LEGO Group, which prioritizes imagination, also offered some solutions while releasing the results of the study. A short, compelling film called “More Than Perfect” runs through two test-case scenarios that reveal some best practices when it comes to unlocking a girl’s creative side.

It is a study in contrast. In the first challenge, girls playing with LEGO bricks are told: What we want you to do is build any playground. But we want it to be perfect. Because we want you to do the best that you can. We want you to be really meticulous.

Even as those instructions are being read, you can see the tension mounting on the girls’ faces. Their eyes flash with uncertainty as a sense of dread sets in. As the girls embark on this pressure-filled task, you see them practically paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake.

As a girl fiddles indecisively with different LEGO elements, her father reminds her, “It has to be the best.”

The daughter replies: “Well, what kind of rule is that?”

Suffice it to say that this first challenge ends not with a creative spark but with a frustrating fizzle.

In the second challenge, however, the girls’ instructions are dramatically different: What we want you to do is build any playground. There is no right or wrong. We want you to have fun with it.

This time, the same faces that scrunched up before instead brighten like a neon sign. They look relaxed, and the ideas tumble out of their mouths like water from a firehouse. In no time, one girl has created a treehouse with a swing.

“I got this,” says another, triumphantly, while working intently on her masterwork.

That film – not even 4 minutes of running time – is all it takes the dramatic difference that’s possible when girls are properly inspired and nurtured when it comes to creativity.

“Hearing directly from girls and parents makes the study and insights real,” Akuya said in her interview with the Geena Davis Institute. “The human response strikes an emotional chord requiring everyone who watches the film to reflect on how language they have used in the past can inadvertently add pressure. In some way, the film operates as a mirror of society that leaves its viewers the opportunity to invite change or be the change that they want to see in the world.”

Dr. Anika Petrella, a researcher and psychotherapist, said it was fascinating to observe the impact words had on the girls’ ability to play and experiment freely while filming “More Than Perfect.”

“A perfection mindset encourages us to stay in our lanes, to fear failure and give up at the first sign of struggle,” Petrella said. “In contrast, a growth mindset encourages us to be brave, embrace failure and to build ourselves up. It creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

She added: “Teaching girls that experimentation triumphs over perfection is crucial to empower their authentic, creative selves and what better way to do this than through play?”

The findings also highlighted a significant societal bias disproportionately impacting girls, with parents noting a prevailing trend where gendered descriptions are commonly used to assess the creative outputs of male and female creators. More specifically, society is around seven times more likely to attribute terms like “sweet,” “pretty,” “cute” and “beautiful” exclusively to females. While terms such as “brave,” “cool,” “genius” and “innovative” are twice as likely to be attributed exclusively to males.

The study’s overarching message is that by changing our language we can help change the future. To that end, the LEGO Group also announced a significant new resource, a guide called “10 Steps to Fostering Creative Confidence,” created in collaboration with Harvard-trained parenting researcher and bestselling author Jennifer B. Wallace. It’s designed to help families nurture creative confidence.

The goal is to learn to speak to girls in a way that allows them the freedom to enter that free-flowing, risk-taking, adventurous head space that represents the creative process at its best.

One of the key lessons in that parenting guide is the notion of embracing setbacks and treating failures as learning opportunities. In the study, 80 percent of girls said they would be less afraid to try new things if mistakes were praised more as learning opportunities.

“The best way to cope with frustration and be free in the creative process is to celebrate progress over perfection and alleviate pressure by reframing setbacks as opportunities to find a solution,” Akuya said.

These are some of Akuya’s other favorite tips from the guide to support girls and bolster their confidence in their creativity:

  • Encourage exploration by providing opportunities for girls to explore diverse creative activities. Celebrate their innate curiosity rather than solely focusing on results.
  • Challenge stereotypes and urge girls to pursue their passions and interests regardless of societal norms.
  • Encourage girls to adopt a growth mindset, emphasizing the importance of effort, perseverance, and learning from setbacks.
  • Support girls in feeling empowered to take risks, embrace experimentation, and express themselves creatively without fear of judgment.

Heeding those lessons could unlock an almost unthinkable number of doors for the next generation. Nine in 10 girls in the study said they believe their confidence would be boosted if adults focused more on the creative process of their work instead of the final output.

It has been said that “the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

Thanks to the LEGO Group’s ambitious new game plan, that enemy can be defeated.

“We hope young creators are inspired to build, try, learn from different play challenges, prompts, and continue to build their creative confidence,” Akuya said. “At the end of the day, we want each child to begin to foster a growth mindset that allows them to tackle any challenge or obstacle.”