Diversity in the science fields does more than ensure a variety of perspectives and passions in the pursuit of scientific discovery. It also sends a message to young people that science is for everyone.
In a new study published in the journal Child Development, researchers examined five decades worth of “Draw a Scientist” studies to see how children’s gender depictions of scientists changed over time. Based on 78 such studies of more than 20,000 children combined, researchers found that children’s drawings included significantly more women over time. However, children still tend to associate science with men as they grow older. More specifically, during the 1960s and 1970s, less than 1 percent of children’s drawings depicted women as scientists, with that number growing to an average of 28 percent between 1985 and 2016.
“It’s an indirect measure of how children perceive science,” said Alice Eagly, a co-author on the new study and a professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University. “Over the decades, we’ve seen the percentage of drawings of women increase, as the percentage of women scientists has increased. (The drawings) reflect the real-world reality — science hasn’t gone 50-50 and neither have the drawings.”
Eagly said that while the drawing studies are an indirect measure of how kids see science, they’re particularly insightful because the kids aren’t subconsciously trying to please the teachers who help conduct the research. In a very literal sense, kids were simply asked to draw a picture of a scientist without having to verbalize or justify why they drew what they drew. For example, in a landmark Draw a Scientist study published in 1983 and based on drawings from nearly 5,000 elementary-age children in the U.S. and Canada between 1966 and 1977, children almost exclusively drew male scientists, often depicting them wearing lab coats and glasses, having beards and working in a laboratory. Just 28 of those children drew a scientist as a woman.
“The drawings will track reality — they’re just a symptom of what’s out in the world,” Eagly told me.
To conduct the new study, Eagly and her co-authors analyzed 78 studies of “Draw a Scientist” tests over the last 50 years, which included more than 20,000 kids in kindergarten through high school. The particular studies included in the meta-analysis spanned the time periods between 1966-1977 and 1985-2016. Researchers found that while the drawings have become more gender-diverse over the years, kids still tend to associate science with men as they get older. Overall, the study found that children drew 73 percent of scientists as male, with kids drawing male scientists less often in the later decades studied. Older children drew male scientists more often than younger ones.
More specifically, kids didn’t draw significantly more men than women until ages 7 and 8. Kindergartners, the study found, drew about equal percentages of male and female scientists, with the tendency to draw scientists as male increasing quickly in elementary and middle school. For example, data from the 1980s and onwards found the mean percentage of male scientists drawn went from 54 percent to 82 percent between ages 6 and 16. On average, girls drew 58 percent of scientists as male, boys drew 95 percent as male. However, both boys and girls tended to draw male scientists less often in the later decades studied. Another interesting finding: On average, 79 percent of drawings were of white scientists.
Eagly and co-authors David Miller, Kyle Nolla and David Uttal write:
Children’s stereotypes of scientists could therefore partly shape sex differences in science-related interests. Girls in recent years may now develop these interests more freely because these stereotypes of scientists have become more androgynous over time. Nevertheless, women remain under-represented in several science fields, and information about such imbalances is filtered through multiple sources such as mass media and social interactions. Children’s drawings of scientists provide one fruitful way to study how children integrate information from these sources to form stereotypes about scientists.
Eagly said the studies show that “kids are tuning into the realities of their external environments.” For example, data from the U.S. Department of Commerce show that in 2015, women held 24 percent of STEM jobs and make up just 25 percent of college-educated STEM workers. Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on women in the workplace, reports that among women of color, the STEM gap is even bigger, with black, Asian and Hispanic women making up less than 10 percent of working scientists and engineers as of 2015.
The study that Eagly co-authored noted that while women remain under-represented in the scientific fields, those numbers are growing. For example, between 1960 and 2013, the percentage of women employed as U.S. scientists went from 28 percent to 49 percent in the biological sciences, from 8 percent to 35 percent in chemistry, and from 3 percent to 11 percent in physics and astronomy. On the issue of media representation, research also charts progress. For instance, in the kids’ magazine Highlights, images of women and girls in science feature stories went from 13 percent in the 1960s to 44 percent in the 2000s.
“We do see more women going into the sciences and I see no reason for that trend to stop, especially since we’re investing a lot of money to encourage women to pursue the sciences,” said Eagly, referring to programs such as the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE initiative.
Eagly said she isn’t particularly surprised at the Draw a Scientist findings — after all, “(children) basically consume the information around them and it affects their beliefs. It’s pretty simple.” But there are ways to foster more diverse views of scientists and encourage interest among young girls and women, she said. That can also be “as simple” as showcasing examples of women scientists in the classroom and helping girls visualize career paths into the scientific fields.
“It gives hope,” Eagly told me. “By providing real role models for girls, you’re giving them a sense that it’s doable.”
For a copy of the scientist drawing study, visit Child Development.