Kids Are Drawing Women Scientists More Often Than They Did Decades Ago

But analysis of studies over the past 50 years show that sketches of male scientists still dominate

School girls drawing
Amanda Mills, USCDCP, Public Domain

For decades, researchers have turned to children's drawings to gain insight as to how society views scientists. The trend started in the late 1960s and 1970s, with social scientist David Wade Chambers when he asked almost 5,000 elementary school children to sketch their version of a scientist. As documented in his landmark 1983 study, only 28 (all girls) of the thousands of children queried drew a woman. ​The rest of the drawings commonly depicted men wearing lab coats, glasses and facial hair who worked indoors.

The results were a telling depiction of the stereotypes linked with scientists society's somewhat dismal awareness of women in science. The Draw-A-Scientist test has since been repeated many times, reports Ed Yong for The Atlantic, and that made David Miller, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, wonder: Has anything changed?

Miller and his colleagues rounded up responses from more than 20,000 children who have been tested since that first study, concluding that children today are more likely to draw a woman scientist than they were five decades ago. The researchers detail their results in a study published in the journal Child Development.​

In Chambers' original study, more than 99 percent of the children drew scientists as men. On average, between the years 1985 to 2016, that number dropped to 72 percent. The effect was stronger when the researchers looked at girls' responses compared to boys. In later decades, almost half of girls drew their scientists as women.

That news seems heartening to advocates for gender diversity and representation and could reflect a growing number of woman training and working as scientists. As Miller writes for Scientific American, since the 1960s, the proportion of women attending school for science and employed in science fields has crept up. In the study, he and his colleagues note women earned 19 percent of bachelor's degrees in chemistry in the U.S. in 1966, but that number rose to 48 percent in 2015, according to the National Science Foundation.

Representation has likewise changed. In the magazine Highlights for Children, women and girls featured in 13 percent of the images related to science stories in the 1960s but appeared in 44 percent of images in the 2000s, Miller writes for Scientific American.

But the findings also come with a big caveat. By the time children turned into teenagers, the responses changed. By the age of 16, during the 1980s onwards, 75 percent of girls and 98 percent of boys drew scientists as men, reports Giorgia Guglielmi for Nature.

In comparison, around 70 percent of six-year-old girls drew scientists as women, Yong reports for The Atlantic. "Middle school is a critical period in which they're learning this gendered information about what is a scientist," Miller tells him.

Miller and the research team also report that about 79 percent of the scientists in the drawings were white. This result, however, is more challenging to interpret since it's not easy to assign race to the drawings. What colors the kids were given can also muddy these statistics, Yong writes.

Overall, the results still seem to suggest that there is work to be done to combat stereotypes in science and open doors for more diverse generations of future scientists. “Stereotypes can play an important role in constraining children’s beliefs of what they can and cannot do,” Toni Schmader, a researcher from the University of British Columbia who studies stereotypes and social identity, tells The Atlantic. “If we can change these representations, young girls might more easily be able to envision a future for themselves in science.”

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