Now more than ever, children in the United States perceive scientists as being female, and not just male. Researchers at Northwestern University analyzed 50 years of “Draw-A-Scientist” studies and found that children are depicting female scientists more often than ever before in their drawings.
According to the experts, the findings indicate that stereotypes linking science to the male gender have weakened in children over time. This is likely due to the depiction of more female scientists in children’s media, such as on television and in magazines.
“Given this change in stereotypes, girls in recent years might now develop interests in science more freely than before,” said study lead author David Miller. “Prior studies have suggested that these gender-science stereotypes could shape girls’ interests in science-related activities and careers.
The investigation was focused on the combined results from 78 “Draw-A-Scientist” studies that included more than 20,000 children in kindergarten through the 12th grade.
In the first study, conducted between 1966 and 1977, less than one percent of nearly 5,000 children drew an image of a woman when asked to draw a scientist. The drawings consistently depicted men working with lab equipment, often with lab coats, glasses, and facial hair.
In later studies, which were conducted between 1985 and 2016, the researchers found that an average of 28 percent of children drew female scientists. While both boys and girls began creating female scientists more over time, girls drew female scientists much more often than boys overall.
“Our results suggest that children’s stereotypes change as women’s and men’s roles change in society,” said study co-author Alice Eagly. “Children still draw more male than female scientists in recent studies, but that is expected because women remain a minority in several science fields.”
The research team also examined how children form stereotypes about scientists throughout their development, and noted that children did not associate science with men until grade school. At around age 5, they drew roughly about the same amount of male and female scientists.
Throughout elementary and middle school, the tendency to depict scientists as being male increased strongly with age. Older children also tended to draw scientists with lab coats and glasses, suggesting that children learn new stereotypes as they grow.
“These changes across children’s age likely reflect that children’s exposure to male scientists accumulates during development, even in recent years,” said study co-author David Uttal.
“To build on cultural changes, teachers and parents should present children with multiple examples of female and male scientists across many contexts such as science courses, television shows and informal conversations.”
The study is published in the journal Child Development.