In 1983, a social scientist named David Chambers published a landmark study on children's drawings. During the late 1960s and the 1970s, teachers asked nearly 5,000 children to draw a scientist. Features of those doodles included lab coats, eureka exclamations and, Chambers noted, “abnormally long sideburns.” A singular theme emerged: The scientists were men.
“Not a single boy in that study drew a female scientist,” said David Miller, a graduate psychology student at Northwestern University. Not very many girls did, either. Only 28 students drew female scientists — less than 1 percent of the students in the study, of whom 49 percent were girls.
The portrait of a scientist in a young person's mind, however, appears to be changing. In the past five years, Miller and his Northwestern colleagues reviewed 78 draw-a-scientist studies completed after Chamber's report. After 1980, 3 in 10 students drew women as scientists. Younger children, young girls in particular, were the most likely to sketch female scientists, according to the report published Tuesday in the journal Child Development.
The study “is important because it shows that children’s gender stereotypes of scientists have decreased over the past five decades in the United States,” said Western Michigan University communications professor Jocelyn Steinke, who studies media representation of scientists and was not a part of the new research.
The results come at a time when scientists such as ecologist Jane Zelikova are pushing back against the Bill Nye stereotype — or “stale, pale and male,” as she put it. Zelikova, a University of Wyoming research scientist, is the co-founder of 500 Women Scientists, a grass-roots organization based on an open letter, published after the 2016 election, that advocated for women and equality in science. The organization quickly grew beyond its first 500 signatories. Today, Zelikova said, 500 Women Scientists has about 400 local chapters, called “pods,” of 10 to 200 members each.
Given that there are now more women in the scientific workforce, Miller and his colleagues predicted that the tendency to draw men would weaken over time. “That’s what we found,” he said, with the proportion of female scientists drawn increasing from 1985 onward.
Pooling pictures by nearly 21,000 students, from kindergarten to grade 12, the authors of the new study also found a change in perception around age 8. Before middle school, most girls drew female scientists and most boys drew male scientists. But as students grew older, the proportion of male scientists in their drawings increased. So, too, did the prevalence of laboratory coats and eyeglasses in their drawings.
“We think this reflects that children are learning multiple stereotypes about scientists as they age,” Miller said. Put another way: Young children might draw more female scientists because they haven't learned the cultural perceptions yet. (Drawings can be barometers for children's opinions about other occupations; in one companion study, students drew 40 percent of veterinarians and 25 percent of teachers as men.)
“If they think that others are expecting them to draw male scientists,” he said, “maybe science isn't perceived as a typical path for girls.”
Female representation in science varies widely by field. In 2013, 49 percent of biologists and 35 percent of chemists were women, but 11 percent of astronomers and physicists. Women earn the majority of bachelor's degrees in biological, social sciences and psychology, according to National Science Foundation statistics, whereas men earn more degrees in engineering, physics and computer sciences.
“The percentage of women has gone up over the decades, but it’s still not at parity,” said social psychologist Sapna Cheryan, who studies gender and STEM at the University of Washington and was not involved with the study. Cheryan said that she would like to see what would happen if children were asked to draw scientists from specific fields, like a biologist or a computer scientist.
Some of the most popular shows on television reinforce computer science and physics as the realms of men, Cheryan said, pointing to “Silicon Valley” and “The Big Bang Theory.” When “The Big Bang Theory” cast women as scientists later in the show, it added female biologists, another example of the idea “men are the engineers and the physicists, and women do biology,” Cheryan said.
Children's media, Miller said, has made improvements. Highlights, the long-running kids' magazine, featured women in 13 percent of their science stories in the 1960s. In the 2000s, Miller said, citing a study of the magazine's content, the proportion of female scientists increased to 44 percent.
“We see television programs like 'SciGirls' and 'Project Mc2' and films like 'Gravity' and 'Hidden Figures' that seek to inspire girls by featuring positive female STEM role models,” Steinke said. The biggest blockbuster so far this year, the movie “Black Panther,” features a character named Shuri: a young, tech-savvy scientist who runs her own lab. She's “a badass,” said Zelikova (who saw the movie three times).
Away from the silver screen, expectations about a scientist's appearance persist. Half of the students in the meta-analysis drew scientists wearing lab coats. Eight in 10 of the drawings were interpreted to be white people.
“I dress in a way that a nerdy scientist might not dress,” said Maryam Zaringhalam, an Iranian American molecular biologist and member of 500 Women Scientists. When hanging out at a bar, if Zaringhalam reveals she is a scientist, she gets strange reactions: “There’s this weird thing where people fetishize you for being a scientist,” and in particular, she said, “a woman of color and a scientist.”
When asked if she found the results of this study promising, Zelikova invoked Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Supreme Court justice once said she would be satisfied when nine women sat on the bench. “Twenty-eight percent is not good enough, not even close. One hundred percent of children should be able to draw a woman scientist,” Zelikova said.
So how does the perception of a scientist change? “If we really want the public to see themselves in science, we have to show them scientists who look like them and talk like them,” Zaringhalam said. To that end, 500 Women Scientists created a Request a Woman Scientist database of more than 5,000 women, experts ready to speak to the public, at conferences or to journalists.
Zaringhalam gave an example on the local level, too. The New York City pod of 500 Women Scientists partnered with a program called BioBus. The bus is like a “real-life Magic School Bus,” she said, a traveling laboratory filled with equipment that allows students to learn about the “weird creatures that they dig up in the East River.”
Meeting actual scientists, it turns out, can dismantle the Bill Nye stereotype. In a twist on the draw-a-scientist test, students have made sketches before and after meeting working scientists. The BBC radio science journalist Quentin Cooper recounted the results of one such study to New Scientist in 2011: A girl's first drawing was a man with a shock of hair and a lab coat. But her second was a woman holding a test tube, with a single word as a caption, “Me.”