In the 1960s, 5,000 children were asked to draw a picture of a scientist - any scientist they wanted. 5,000 different drawings later, it was found that 99 percent of these children drew a male scientist, often garbed with frizzy hair, a dirty lab coat and an Erlenmeyer flask in their right hand. While males up only 51.9 percent of the world’s population, they make up an astronomical 99 percent of the scientists in the children’s imagination. With less than one percent representation in these children’s drawing, women in science, especially in the 1960s, were a minority. Not only do these drawings show a disparity in representation, these stereotypes could have an adverse effect on aspiring female scientists.
As a follow-up to the “Draw-a-Scientist” experiment, researchers from Northwestern University conducted the same experiment on March 31 to study the changes in the children’s drawings. In contrast to the less than one percent representation of women in drawings, around 28 percent of the drawings were of women. It was also found that both boys and girls drew female scientists more frequently, though more girls were more likely.
“Given this change in stereotypes, girls in recent years might now develop interests in science more freely than before,” said study author David Miller, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern. “Prior studies have suggested that these gender-science stereotypes could shape girls’ interests in science-related activities and careers.”
Another interesting find in these studies was the fact that children actually do not form stereotypes until they are older. Children around the age of five have a 50 percent chance of drawing female scientists. Gradually, the percent decreases as the children’s age goes up. In addition, there is an increase of more stereotypical details like lab coats, unruly hair and glasses. This strongly suggests that children learn from the stereotypes as they mature.
To counter these stereotypes, outreach activities and exposure to more females in STEM could be a positive way to lay groundwork into children’s minds at an early age. Increasing media portrayals of female scientists could also shed positive light on the position of women in science.
The “Draw-a-Scientist” experiment has been an icon of the gender inequality in the STEM fields for nearly five decades now. However, the recent research could be a promising sign that the inequality in STEM is taking a big step forward and maybe even eradicated.