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The Pervasive Stereotype of the Male Scientist

Today’s kids are less reflexively sexist than past generations. But the stereotype that all scientists are male remains stubbornly persistent.

If you were asked to draw a scientist, what would you come up with? Well, if you're anything like America's high schoolers, it'd likely be someone in a lab coat, wearing glasses or goggles, perhaps staring intently into a microscope.

Needless to say, it'd be a man.

New research reports the assumption that scientists are male has gradually decreased over recent decades. But the stereotype is stubbornly persistent—and, even today, it takes hold more firmly as children mature.

"Children still associate science with men as they grow older," writes a Northwestern University research team led by physicist-turned-psychologist David Miller. This apparently reflects the societal prejudices kids are inevitably exposed to, and the images they see in the mass media.

Miller and his colleagues conducted a meta-study of the decades-old Draw-a-Scientist test, in which schoolchildren of all ages are simply asked to draw a scientist. They analyzed 20,860 such drawings from 78 studies, from the first in 1983 (featuring drawings made in the 1960s and '70s) through others published in 2016.

In the journal Child Development, the researchers report that gender stereotypes have retreated somewhat since that initial study. "Children drew 99.4 percent of scientists as male in (the seminal 1983) study, compared to 72 percent on average in later studies," they write.

But that figure hides a huge, and only somewhat narrowing, gender gap. "Between the years of 1985 and 2016," the researchers write, "the mean percentage of female scientists rose from 33 percent to 58 percent for girls, and 2.5 percent to 13 percent for boys."

While that's a significant shift, it appears the vast majority of boys continue to think of scientists as men.

More troubling—and more fascinating for those who are interested in how and when stereotypes take hold—the researchers found "both boys and girls tended to draw male scientists more often with increasing age."

Again focusing on studies from 1985 and 2016, "girls on average draw 30 percent of scientists as male at age 6," Miller and his colleagues report. "However, girls switched to drawing more male than female scientists between the ages of 10 to 11. By age 16 (high school), girls on average drew 75 percent of scientists as male."

That direction was the same for their male counterparts, although they started with a far different assumption: "For boys, the mean percentage of male scientists changed from 83 percent to 98 percent between ages 6 to 16."

These numbers "likely reflect that children's exposure to male scientists accumulates during development, even in recent years," co-author David Uttal said in announcing the findings.

He adds that, if we want to close the gender gap in the STEM fields, "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."

Perhaps the Hollywood #MeToo movement can inspire more movies like Hidden Figures and the engrossing documentary Jane. With or without a hashtag, women are scientists too.