Fifty years back, asking a child to draw a scientist would have resulted in their drawing a male scientist 99 percent of the time. A same exercise given to children today would yield at least one third of the pictures of women scientists, finds a new heartening study.
The study from Northwestern University was looking at gender stereotypes in science over years and how these develop in children. It was published in the latest issue of the journal Child Development.
The study looked at 78 different studies that included over 20000 children over a span of several years between 1966 and 2016. With time, they noted that kids now tend to depict more women scientists than they did before. David I. Miller, lead scientist from Northwestern University and a PhD candidate in psychology explained that the reason behind this was the fact that more women were being represented in science and also more women scientists were depicted in popular culture and the media for the kids to pick up.
He explains that since the 1960’s the percentage of women scientists in the United States “rose from 28% to 49% in biological science, 8% to 35% in chemistry, and 3% to 11% in physics and astronomy.” This was part of the contributor to this trend. Another part was that more TV shows, movies and magazines and even dolls portray female scientists. Miller said there were movies like “Hidden figures” that showed black female scientists/mathematicians at NASA. These and other movies and magazines are what children see and what they pick up, he said.
The team of researchers looked at research between 1966 and 1977 where 5000 elementary school students were asked to draw a scientist and of all those students 28 children (all of them girls) drew a female scientist. This makes for less than 1 percent of all kids. The next span of time that they studied was between 1985 and 2016. Now they found that 28 percent of the kids drew female scientists. This trend however was seen to reverse as the child grew older. By the time the kids reached high school, they tended to draw men again as scientists. Authors write, “During elementary and middle school, the tendency to draw male scientists increased rapidly with age… When children started high school at ages 14-15, they drew more male than female scientists by an average ratio of 4 to 1.”
According to Miller, gender stereotypes emerge early by the age of 2 or 3 years. By the time a child starts school at 5 years, they are mostly unaware of what a scientist is or does and so stereotypes do not set in. During this time, media, toys or pop culture can make an impact on them and they tend to include more women as scientists. As they grow older, this changes because in reality there are more men in science than women. The older kids depict what they see around them rather than what they encounter in pop culture or the media. Miller said this change in views “reflects children’s growing awareness of cultural norms” and depends on the “observations that children see in their environments.”
Miller says, breaking these gender stereotypes early can make more of these girls aim to pursue science. “The stereotypes about scientists have become less masculine over time,” he said. He added that more parents should expose their children to “diversified examples of scientists” early on to allow them to aim for science and science related jobs as a career.