March 21, 2018
Meta-Analysis Suggests More Children Are Drawing Female Scientists

Throughout the years, children have typically drawn scientists as male characters, but with female scientists now being far more common than they were in previous decades, today's children are more likely than ever to draw scientists as women, as shown in the results of a new meta-analysis.

As detailed by the Washington Post, social scientist David Chambers led a study where close to 5,000 students in the late 1960s and the 1970s, 51 percent of them male and 49 percent female, were asked to draw a scientist. When the study was published in 1983, it was revealed that only 28 of the students, or less than 1 percent of the participants, drew female scientists, with none of the boys depicting the scientists as women.

This trend, however, appears to have changed in recent decades, as Northwestern University graduate psychology student David Miller and his colleagues revealed in a new paper. A meta-analysis published Tuesday in the journal Child Development looked at 78 previous studies where about 20,000 children were asked to draw scientists. The analysis showed that about three in 10 students after 1980 made drawings of female scientists, with younger children, especially girls, more likely to do so.

Based on these studies, which were all completed after Chambers' landmark study, about 70 percent of girls and 83 percent of boys aged six-years-old drew scientists whose gender matched their own, which, according to ABC News, is consistent with how children of that age tend to draw generic people, with little to no specific idea of whether a scientist should be male or female. The meta-analysis, however, suggested that boys and girls alike tended to draw male scientists as they grew older, with girls aged 16 about three times more likely to draw male, and not female scientists.

"We think this reflects that children are learning multiple stereotypes about scientists as they age," Miller commented.

In a statement cited by the Washington Post, Western Michigan University communication professor Jocelyn Steinke, who was not involved in the new research, said the analysis is "important" because it shows children have less gender stereotypes of scientists than they did about five decades ago. Likewise, the publication noted that the results come on the heels of multiple movements to challenge the so-called "Bill Nye stereotype," where scientists, according to University of Wyoming ecologist Jane Zelikova, are perceived to be "stale, pale, and male" like the popular "Science Guy" of television fame.

With more female scientists emerging in their respective fields, Miller believes that the percentage of children drawing women in science will continue to increase in the years to follow, as the research pointed to the percentage of women scientists drawn by children steadily rising from 1985 onward. University of Washington social psychologist Sapna Cheryan, however, raised some concerns, as popular television programs tend to "reinforce computer science and physics as the realms of men," while portraying biology as a more female-friendly area of science. She told the Washington Post that it would be interesting to see what would happen if children were asked to draw biologists, computer scientists, or other specific types of scientists.

Given the general perception of scientists being predominantly male remaining among children, despite the progress shown by the meta-analysis, the Washington Post concluded that the "Bill Nye stereotype" could further be bucked if children got to meet actual scientists. Additionally, Miller opined in a blog post he wrote for Scientific American that children should be made aware by their parents and teachers that scientists can come from diverse walks of life, and aren't just the usual "dead, white, [and] male" examples they are exposed to in typical classroom situations.