Pop “scientist” into an image search and you’re likely to see people in goggles and white coats, swirling liquids in Erlenmyer flasks or peering into microscopes. A new study finds the older students get, the more their image of a “scientist” comes into line with that stereotypical view.
But in the past 50 years, girls and boys alike have become more willing to picture women in scientific fields,. Northwestern University researchers scrutinized the results and drawings from 78 studies of more than 20,000 K-12 students since 1966. In each of those studies, students across grades and states had been asked to draw a scientist at work.
Overall, students drew about 73 percent of scientists as male, but women have gained a lot of ground. In the studies conducted before 1983, only 0.6 percent of all drawings depicted a woman as a scientist. In more recent studies, women are drawn as scientists 28 percent of the time.
“If you ask children to draw a person, they are more likely to draw their own sex than the opposite sex,” said David Miller, a postdoctoral psychologist and the lead author of the study,
Boys overwhelmingly draw scientists as male, while girls tend to envision them as female—at least at first. At age 6, girls drew about 70 percent of their scientists as women. But by the time they were 16, girls depicted scientists as male 75 percent of the time.
“The change toward more men being drawn as children age merely reflects that they are more aware of their society as they get older—that is, more aware that more men than women are scientists,” said co-author Alice Eagley.
In notes accompanying some of the studies, some students specifically mentioned famous scientists such as Marie Curie or Albert Einstein, or popular television personalities such as Bill Nye, the Science Guy as shaping their view of what a scientist looks like. Nonetheless, their views became more stereotypical in concept as they got older. The researchers found, for example, that older students were more likely to depict a scientist inside, in a lab, while younger students were more likely to draw scientists outside. (And it’s worth noting that while the researchers did not dig much into racial differences, 79 percent of all of the drawings depicted scientists as white.)
“I think that result suggests that children learn multiple stereotypes about scientists as they mature, not just stereotypes about gender,” Miller said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2018 edition of Education Week as Scientists Look Like What?