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Science

Want More Girls in Science Fields? Check the Images on Your Classroom Walls

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 20, 2018 2 min read

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.

In the past 50 years, girls and boys alike have become more willing to picture women in scientific fields, according to a new meta-analysis in the journal Child Development. Northwestern University researchers scrutinized the results and drawings of 78 studies of more than 20,000 K-12 students since 1966. In each of these studies, students across grades and states had been asked to draw a scientist at work.

Overall, students have drawn about 73 percent of scientists as male, but women have gained a lot of ground over time. In the studies conducted before 1983, only .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.

Both boys and girls have become more likely to draw female scientists during the 50-year span of the analysis, though David Miller, a postdoctoral psychologist and the lead author of the study, noted that boys still overwhelmingly draw scientists as male.

“If you ask children to draw a person, they are more likely to draw their own sex than the opposite sex,” Miller said. “It’s not that boys stereotype scientists more than girls because you have to account for boys incorporating their own gender identity into their drawings.”

Science Identity Gap Widens as Students Age

And in fact, girls were more likely to envision scientists as their own gender, too—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.

That didn’t surprise study co-author Alice Eagly. “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,” Eagley said.

In notes accompanying some of the studies, some students specifically mentioned famous scientists such as Marie Curie or Albert Einstein, or popular characters such as Bill Nye, the Science Guy, or Miss Frizzle of “The Magic School Bus” as shaping their view of what a scientist looks like.

But students’ views of scientists also became more stereotypical in concept as they got older. The researchers found, for example, that older students were more likely to draw a scientist as older, with a white coat or with goggles, and they were also more likely to depict a scientist inside, in a lab, rather than outside. Younger students were also more likely than older students to draw scientists outside, rather than inside a lab. (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. “The developmental changes about lab coats and eyeglasses could likely reflect children’s increasing exposure throughout development to scientists dressed in archetypal laboratory attire.”

Images: Elementary students’ drawings of scientists. Sources: David Miller, Northwestern University; Richard Jones, University of Hawaii, West Oahu, and Lori Fulton, the University of Hawaii, Manoa

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.