WASHINGTON, DC (Circa) – When you hear the word “scientist,” what image comes to mind? If you had to draw one, would your scientist be male or female?
Well, according to a recent study out of Northwestern University, U.S. kids are drawing more female scientists than ever before.
David Miller, the lead author and a psychology Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern, said he analyzed five decades of “Draw-A-Scientist” studies conducted since the 1960s.
As part of his research, Miller looked at 78 studies which included more than 20,000 responses from children over the course of five decades.For the landmark study, David Wade Chambers collected drawings from nearly 5,000 children in the U.S. and Canada between 1966 and 1977. According to Miller’s study, those original drawings “almost exclusively depicted male scientists, often with lab coats, eyeglasses, and facial hair, working indoors with laboratory equipment.”
Less than one percent of kids who participated in that study actually drew a female scientist.
“In contrast, in the 1980s and onward, 28 percent of children on average drew a female scientist,” Miller said. “We think that these results reflect that children’s stereotypes associating science with men have weakened over time, consistent with increases in more women earning science degrees and more female scientists being represented in children’s media.”
Miller said if you ask a child to draw a generic person, they are more likely to draw a person of their own sex. Consistent with that, Miller said girls tended to draw more female scientists than boys.
However, Miller noted that both boys and girls drew more female scientists in later decades compared to earlier decades.
Gender wasn’t the only factor researchers considered. Miller said they also looked at how age factors into the gender stereotypes children acquire over time.
“What we found is that when children entered elementary school around ages five to six, they drew roughly equal proportions of male and female scientists,” Miller said. “However, the tendency to draw a male scientist strongly increased with age during elementary school and middle school.”
Researchers also analyzed the data with and without the landmark study. Miller said without the landmark study, the trend of children drawing more female scientists is “somewhat less clear.”
“In other words, U.S. children have definitely drawn more female scientists compared to the 1960s and 1970s, but the evidence for change within the later decades is less clear and is tentative,” he said.
For Miller, the biggest takeaway from this study was that children develop stereotypes in response to changes in their environment. Miller added that the research suggests that children start developing stereotypes about scientists as early as elementary and middle school.
While that is something Miller said is important for parents and teachers to remember, he also noted that women are increasingly being represented in children’s media outlets like Highlights magazine.
“I think children should be exposed to diverse examples of scientists that go beyond the old dead white scientists usually presented in classrooms,” Miller said. “Girls, if they have the interest and aptitude for science, they should view it as something that’s encouraged for them, even if it’s, in terms of the numbers, more men than women going into science.”
Read more stories from Alix Hines on Circa.