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Children's Perceptions of Who Can Be a Scientist Are Changing

A new study shows children think scientists are both men and women until they start first grade, and begin to associate science with males. (Pixabay)
A new study shows children think scientists are both men and women until they start first grade, and begin to associate science with males. (Pixabay)
March 20, 2018

DES MOINES, Iowa – Think of a scientist: if you were asked to draw that scientist in the 1960s, you almost certainly drew a male - but a new study shows today's children depict female scientists more often than ever before.

In 1966, women earned about 20 percent of chemistry bachelor degrees in the United States. But when asked to draw a scientist, only 28 children out of 5,000 drew a woman - and all 28 of those drawings were by girls.

By 2015, women earned 48 percent of all chemistry degrees.

And while children younger than age 5 tend to draw both male and female scientists, study co-author David Miller says that changes in later grades.

"We found that when children were entering kindergarten, they were drawing roughly equal proportions of male and female scientists," he notes. "However, the tendency to draw male scientists did increase strongly during elementary school and middle school."

Children's artwork from earlier decades almost exclusively showed scientists as bearded men wearing glasses and lab coats. The recent studies show that both girls and boys drew female scientists more often, although girls overall drew female scientists much more often than boys.

Miller, a graduate student in the Psychology Department at Northwestern University, says children's perceptions of who can be a scientist have changed in part because female scientists are more often portrayed on television shows, and in magazines and other media.

"So more women are earning science degrees now, and are becoming employed as science researchers," he explains. "In addition to that, there's some evidence to suggest that female scientists are now more often represented in children's media."

The Northwestern study is the first systematic, quantitative review of the "Draw-A-Scientist" literature and combined results from 78 U.S. studies, including more than 20,000 children in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - IA