After five decades, children are gradually drawing more women as scientists

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Mar 27, 2018, 5:38 PM EDT (Updated)

Female representation in science is gradually increasing — at least on-screen — but when it comes to the people that children are envisioning as scientists, the illustrations are nowhere near parity.

Northwestern's David Miller and his colleagues have examined over five decades' worth of data involving the Draw-a-Scientist Test, which has become a means of social study designed to analyze children's gender-science stereotypes. Among the 78 individual studies, over 20,000 children's drawings were accounted for. What was the focus? To see if a child would draw a man or a woman as a scientist when prompted to draw one without any gender-identifying language.

Over a period of about 50 years, some things definitely started to change. For one, Miller's team discovered that children were illustrating more scientists as women — from the 1980s on, 28% of children drew female scientists on average, a drastic increase when compared to 0.6% in the '60s and '70s. Considering that more women are getting science degrees in general, as well as appearing more frequently in media intended for children (like textbooks and educational television), it makes sense that kids would be more inclined to draw what they're regularly seeing.

There are other interesting factors, too; according to the findings from Miller's team, gender-science stereotypes are stronger with young boys than girls. Based on results from more recent decades, girls drew female scientists 45% of the time, while boys drew them only 5%. That may also have something to do with the fact that children tend to illustrate their own gender more often than not when they're asked to draw a person in a certain profession or role.

Still, even though kids are beginning to envision female scientists more and more in the worlds they create, depending on the specific science field the proportion of women to their male colleagues isn't very high. Chemistry and biology are more varied in terms of gender make-up, but other fields, like computer science, engineering, and physics have yet to catch up to the same percentages. Based on the Draw-A-Scientist study, as girls get older they begin to draw more and more men as scientists — and that may have something to do with the viewpoints they're being introduced to. "Middle school is a critical period in which they’re learning this gendered information about what is a scientist," said Miller.

The University of British Columbia's Toni Schmader has a potential remedy: "Stereotypes can play an important role in constraining children’s beliefs of what they can and cannot do. If we can change these representations, young girls might more easily be able to envision a future for themselves in science."

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