Emphasizing and encouraging women in science has been a major goal in recent years. Rather than seeing science as a “man’s job”, teachers and scientists are spreading awareness about the contributions of female scientists and encouraging girls to follow a career path in science. How children themselves perceive scientists is telling. Today, many more grade-school children draw a female scientist than students from fifty years ago.

The percentage of women has increased in almost every scientific field in the past fifty years. Researchers from the Northwestern University analyzed “Draw a scientist” tests conducted over the same time period to see if children’s gender perceptions of a scientist have also changed. The study has been published in the journal Child Development. Seventy-eight studies of “Draw a scientist tests” in the USA that included more than 20,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade were analyzed. Only one study covered the time range from 1966 to 1977; the rest were conducted between 1985 and 2016.

A drawing of a female scientist. Image credits: Doublecompile.

In the 1960s and 1970s, less than 1% of children’s drawings showed a female scientist. There was a stronger cultural perception of men as scientists. Already in the 1980s, the percentage of female scientists rose to 28%. All in all, there was an increase in the number of female scientists drawn by children in the past fifty years, but men are still portrayed as scientists more frequently.

“These findings shed light on how children learn to associate science with men and how they respond to changes in their cultural environment such as increases in women’s representation in science,” says David I. Miller, Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Northwestern University, who led the study.

Interestingly, the study found differences in regards to age. Children under the age of seven drew roughly equal percentages of male and female scientists. It was only after this age, and increasingly into middle school and high school, that students drew more male than female scientists. Perhaps mass media and later education play an unconscious role in shaping students’ perceptions of what a scientist should be like.

There has, of course, been a tremendous increase in woman involved in science, as well as a popular culture that reflects this. It is encouraging that children view men and women equally probable to be scientists. However, it is clear that public perception doesn’t hold this equality, as you still encounter many more portrayals of and references to male scientists. It is in high school that women tend to back away from science, perhaps due to social expectations and encouragement. These drawing tests reflect this problem and show that improvement is still necessary, especially in this vulnerable age group.

Summarized from Child Development, The Development of Children’s Gender-Science Stereotypes: A Meta-Analysis of Five Decades of U.S. Draw-A-Scientist Studies by Miller, DI, Nolla, KM, Eagly, AH, and Uttal, DH (Northwestern University). Copyright 2018 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

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