From 1966 to 1977, a group of scientists conducted a simple experiment: they asked 5,000 school-age children to “draw a scientist.”
The kids complied, drawing all kinds of scientists. But only 28 of them – less than 1% — drew a female, TIME reports. The results of that study were published in 1983, the experiment has been repeated by other groups. Now, a new team looked at 78 of these studies, focusing on American children, to see how things have changed.
David Miller, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Northwestern University and one of the study’s authors, said, “Given that children might see a greater representation of female scientists [today] and are more often seeing female scientists in media marketed toward children, we wanted to know: How are those cultural changes influencing children’s images? Have children’s stereotypes changed along with them?” He concluded, “The basic finding is that, indeed, yes.”
Since 1985, the number of participants has been around 21,000, with some published as recently as 2017. Around 28% of them drew women scientists, Miller said. Girls are more likely to draw females compared to boys. Some 42% of girls’ drawings showed female scientists, while only 5% of boys did the same. But there has been considerable growth among both genders, Miller observed, meaning there is a significant impact in better gender representation in the sciences.
It’s not directly asking children to say, ‘Is science for men or is it for women?’ It’s not expressing these explicit stereotypes. It’s more getting at these associations that children have.
These associations are changing, studies show. Miller and his co-researchers found that kids younger than six years old drew male and female scientists almost equally. When they got to elementary and middle school, they began drawing significantly more male scientists, which reflects “a developmental shift that we think likely reflects children’s greater exposure to male scientists as they age,” Miller said.
This entire study emphasizes the importance of visible representation. Miller explained, “Women are still underrepresented in some fields, so it makes sense that children exposed to that environment are still reproducing those stereotypes. What’s important to consider is making sure those stereotypes don’t unfairly limit girls’ interest in science — that girls who are really interested in science can pursue it.”
The study was published in Child Development.