Scientists are “normal” people, some children discover

This is a modified version of a post that was originally published at Restructure!

In Drawings of Scientists, seventh graders draw and describe their image of scientists before and after a visit to Fermilab.

The scientist has big square-shaped glasses and a big geeky nose with brown hair and blue eyes. I see a scientist working in a lab with a white lab coat . . . holding a beaker filled with solutions only he knows. Scientists are very interesting people who can figure out things we don’t even know exist. My picture of a scientist is completely different than what it used to be! The scientist I saw doesn¹t wear a lab coat. . . . The scientists used good vocabulary and spoke like they knew what they were talking about.

I think of a scientist as very dedicated to his work. He is kind of crazy, talking always quickly. He constantly is getting new ideas. He is always asking questions and can be annoying. He listens to others’ ideas and questions them. I know scientists are just normal people with a not so normal job. . . . Scientists lead a normal life outside of being a scientist. They are interested in dancing, pottery, jogging and even racquetball. Being a scientist is just another job which can be much more exciting.
A scientist is hard working, studious, detail-oriented, observant, intelligent, exacting, and patient. Most people think of a scientist as a person who is nerdy, studious, scholarly, and a person who is devoted to her job and doesn¹t have much of a personality or isn¹t very interesting. This is a stereotype and today just proves that scientists have lives, interests, hobbies, families and friends. I find that scientists are very, very interesting

Here are some interesting gender statistics about these drawings (if I correctly perceive the children’s genders and the scientists’ genders in the children’s drawings):

  • Among girls (14 in total), 36% portrayed a female scientist in the “before” drawing, and 57% portrayed a female scientist in the “after” drawing.
  • Among boys (17 in total), 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “before” drawing, and 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “after” drawing.

It looks like a visit to Fermilab has no impact on boys’ gender stereotypes about scientists, but it has a strong impact on challenging girls’ gender stereotypes about scientists. For girls, there was a 58% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings; for boys, there was a 0% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings.

If boys grow up to be men, and empirical evidence has no effect on males’ gender stereotypes about scientists, how do we challenge males’ association of science with maleness?

In Scientific Stereotype, David Bradley writes about a British-Australian study on children’s views of scientists:

Worryingly, children of Asian and African-Caribbean descent generally held the same opinion as their white peers. Most children’s sketches of scientists endowed them with a white, male face and the usual eccentric hair. Boys, Jarvis says, never drew women, and girls did so only very occasionally. While there may well be a minority of scientists who fit the category, it indicates a very narrow view of scientists, one that is so very often reinforced through TV programs and cartoons, comic books, and comments from nonscientist parents and other adults. We then wonder why so many girls and non-white children find it very difficult to envision themselves as future scientists.

35 thoughts on “Scientists are “normal” people, some children discover

  1. Mokele

    I wonder, based on the changes in gender of drawn scientists, what the gender ratio is in the lab they visited? Physics in general has a pretty abysmal gender ratio (last I saw it was less than 8% female at the faculty level, though it may be slightly better at the doctoral student level).

    Being biased towards my own field, I wonder what would happen if the students had gone to a biology lab (>40% female faculty, grad students often 50/50 or majority female). When faced with a much more equitable mix, would the boys have drawn female scientists?

  2. Toysoldier

    “For girls, there was a 58% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings; for boys, there was a 0% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings. If boys grow up to be men, and empirical evidence has no effect on males’ gender stereotypes about scientists, how do we challenge males’ association of science with maleness?”

    The results do not necessarily indicate some anti-woman bias coming from the boys. The boys’ comments clearly indicate that they were impacted by their experience. Perhaps their response, like some of the girls, was simply gender-specific, i.e. they may have represented themselves or a scientist they identified with in their ‘after’ drawing. I think it is unfair and unwise to jump to the conclusion that because boys did not draw women that they associate science with maleness.

    1. Restructure! Post author

      Not all the girls drew same-gender scientists in the ‘after’ drawing, though.

      In the British-Australian study on 4,000 children, all the boys drew male scientists, while girls occasionally drew female scientists. Even if self-identification is a factor, the over-representation of male figures in general may lead girls and women to more easily identify with boys and men, but not vice-versa.

      1. JMH

        “Even if self-identification is a factor, the over-representation of male figures in general may lead girls and women to more easily identify with boys and men, but not vice-versa.”
        I think that’s more the point, and it’s a problem one should deal with on the girl level. If you did a similar exercise involving, oh say nurses, I’d wager you’d find it reversed. Boys know they can grow up to be scientists. Girls don’t, even when they see that some girls do.
        And as a rather geeky girl, I can tell you most of my childhood heros were boys, because they were more interesting. It’s a little better now, but not much. Boys get to have adventures. Girls get to make friends. If you’re a girl wanting adventure… you read books with male leads.

        1. Restructure! Post author

          Or it’s something that should be dealt with on the boy level. There is nothing wrong with identifying with someone of the opposite gender, but I think there’s something wrong if you can identify with only people of the same gender, race, etc.

        2. John

          “Boys know they can grow up to be scientists. Girls don’t, even when they see that some girls do.”

          That was my reaction to the stats. I was kind of surprised by the “clearly these 10 year olds are screaming misogynists” interpretation.

          If kids associate their own gender as the unless-stated-otherwise “default” (which is presumably the target of equality, unless you want them to start imagining some Platonic-ideal androgyne) then they will draw their own gender for (a) jobs they associate with their own gender and (b) jobs they *don’t* associate with a gender, and they will draw the opposite sex for (c) jobs they associate with the opposite sex. Girls will likely draw female nurses both before and after they meet male nurses, boys will draw female nurses until they meet an awesome male nurse who totally plays football and he’s got this tattoo of a dragon…. after which *some* of them will draw male nurses.

  3. tina

    empirical evidence has no effect on males’ gender stereotypes about scientists

    I would propose another explanation: for boys, there is a strong norm against drawing a woman (or using the color pink, or doing anything that others can perceive as feminine), regardless of their awareness of women scientists. If this is the underlying cause, no amount of new information about women in science is going to have an effect on boys’ artistic (or other) products in school. Then again, it means that boys may know more about women in science than their drawings/writings will indicate. Not ideal for gender equality or the removal of barriers to women in science, I agree, but it’s something.

  4. bh

    I think I agree with tina here. 7th grade is an incredibly awkward time, genderwise. Though some of the boys probably draw female superhero characters frequently (and all of them definitely draw sexualized images of women at some point), drawing a woman for this assignment might have earned them some ridicule or accusations of having a crush.

    Yet if you directly asked the boys whether a woman could be a scientist, they’d probably say yes in that annoyed voice of theirs and roll their eyes.

  5. maggie

    Tina – I suspect that if they were asked to draw a nurse, the boys would all draw females. It would be interesting to see if they took a field trip to a hospital with a lot of male nurses working, if they would continue to draw the nurse as female. I suspect the answer would be yes.

    1. perlhaqr

      That would certainly be a good experiment to try to help confirm or deny the hypothesis.

  6. Dr. Psycho

    I am reminded of a study in which children were asked to “draw a picture of a fireman and a policeman”, and another group were asked to “draw a firefighter and a police officer”.

    Guess what was different about the two sets of pictures…?

  7. goin

    “If boys grow up to be men, and empirical evidence has no effect on males’ gender stereotypes…”

    Here’s another explanation: visits to fermilab showed the children that scientists are more like themselves (rather than some strange, “other” male scientist). Hence, some of the girls were more prone to draw scientists like them, while the boys showed no observable change because they were drawing people who were like themselves, which happen to be male. Looking through a couple of the pictures, it does seem like the boys changed their drawings from lab coats to normal clothes.

  8. Nicole

    Heh, my first though from the pictures before I read the whole thing, ‘Trans women scientists!’.

  9. TRP

    I can say as a physicist who has done experimental work, I have only worn a lab coat once because our student group in undergrad was in the homecoming parade.

    There are plenty of non-white folks that I have worked with, but most were Asian or Middle-Eastern and none have been black or Hispanic. I can’t speak much on the gender inequality. I seem to end up in departments that have a disproportionate number of women relative to the national averages.

    Great blog by the way.


  10. Ciera

    I have to agree with goin. It would actually be interesting if they did this as a larger study, and correlated not just gender, but also race. I noticed a few kids actually had their scientist change race, and I wonder if they were also drawing someone more like themselves. Many of the boys also had the first scientist balding and with wrinkles, while the second one had hair (including a variety of facial hair) and without wrinkles. Again, perhaps they were drawing someone more like what they envision themselves as becoming?

  11. raidor

    i would say the problem is more with the girls drawings, the ratio of females in their paintings should be higher, near 100%.

    i find it quite natural that the boys draw primarly men, for the peer pressure reason and the “i can also be a scientists” reason.

    If one did the proposed nure experiment, i would assume, that the girls would all draw female nurses, even when there where many male nurses in the staff, because they can envision themselfs as nurses, what is all the problem here.

  12. John

    I don’t think you can conclude that… I think that they just drew the person that had a bigger impact on them.

    I saw that 10 out of the 31 (~32,2%) probably represent the same person (“scientist with a goatee”), so he probably stood out for some reason… spent more time with the students or was the first or last person that was with them.

    And for all the other reasons people said above.

    I think the real take home message is that the visit has a huge impact on the scientist stereotype.

    1. Restructure! Post author

      If they just drew the person who had the bigger impact on them, why did none of the female scientists have any impact on the boys?

  13. Susan Kaye Quinn

    So, I’m left wondering what the impression was from the scientists at Fermilab? When I visited Fermilab, the only females I saw (on tour) were the tour guides.

    Great comments here!

  14. Kit

    When I was young and wanted to be a boy I was totally into math and science. When I got older and enjoyed being female (albeit alternative), I turned more toward literature and the arts. Now that I am much older (much much), I’m beginning to find a synthesis between the two genders I mean genres.

  15. bug_girl

    I’m kind of surprised no one has mentioned the “draw a scientist” paper, and the many many papers referencing it since then. (this may also be a function of my age; it was a big deal in the 80s).

    Here’s one review from 2002:

    Drawing a Scientist: What We Do and Do Not Know After Fifty Years of Drawings

    A quick trip into Google Scholar with “draw a scientist test” will find most of the references. Perhaps the most disappointing paper is the one that finds the results for elementary students and college students are not statistically different: they still all draw dudes with beards.

  16. C

    Linked from Skepchick…
    I wonder if those concepts will stick, though. They all seem to be emphasizing the “real life” bit, so that was probably emphasized in the “program”. Will they think the same thing in a month or two? A year? I am curious about that, in addition to many of the other concepts brought up in this thread. Very smart blog commenters here, I will have to come by more regularly.

  17. BionicValkyrie

    Intriguing. The “after” drawings seem more specific, as if the students are drawing a specific person rather than a general idea of a scientist. Note that ten percent of the “after” drawings show a man with moustache and goatee, wearing a red/blue striped top. Note also that “ten percent” is, well, three individuals: Amanda, Jeffrey, Kyle. Isn’t it a bit misleading to talk about statistics when you could count the individuals behind the percentages on the fingers of one badly frostbitten hand?

    How was this event set up and explained to the students and to the scientists? Students, we’re going to see real scientists and guess what, you’ll see that they’re real, regular people! Fermilab researchers, tell these kids that you’re real, regular people! Check out the word balloon in this “after” picture — — “Hello I am a regular person!” Hello you are a perceptive kid! who drew what the teachers wanted to see.

  18. Samia

    If I remember correctly, FermiLab does not have the greatest track record when it comes to handling complaints about sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s good that women are seeing decent representation in some disciplines, but to me the reaction of an administration to complaints of misconduct is what counts. If the price for being allowed to play with the boys is putting up with sexual harassment and then being shuffled off to another division when you complain about it…yeah.

  19. David Sklar

    I’m glad I read the comments before posting my own, because I was going to talk about the same thing that most of these comments addressed–that boys drawing boys doesn’t necessarily mean stereotyping, but more likely just indicates that they’re drawing people they could identify with.

    As for all the varied discussion on this topic…It’s interesting, but it seems like most people are thinking less like scientists and more like debaters. It would be interesting to try to figure out the reason for the difference between boys drawing only men and girls drawing 57% women after meeting actual scientists. Some possibilities:
    1. It could be the old stereotypes lingering, as the blog post says
    2. Depending on the gender composition of the actual lab, it could just be the law of averages. For example, if it’s 60%-80% male, then the numbers might mean that boys and girls are both exaggerating the number of people in their own gender, by around the same amount.
    3. I’ve heard it theorized that women and girls are better than men and boys at identifying across gender lines–either because of the physiology of the brain or because the dominant culture reflects the views of men. If it’s a physiology thing, then it is the way it is. If it’s a dominant culture thing, then it means there’s more work to be done.

    I could probably go on–possibly just by picking up things that were discussed above–but I’ve got to go back and take a turn with getting my son off to sleep.

    1. Travis

      Of course it’s a cultural thing. You see the exact same thing happen with all privileged groups, not just men. The brains of white people are not different to the brains of people of color. The brains of able-bodied people, cisgender people, heterosexual people, etc. are not different to those of disabled people, transgender people, and queer people, respectively.

      1. David Sklar

        Actually, women have a larger corpus collosum (sp?–the connector between the two halves of the brain), which is believed to play a role in empathy and may therefore be relevant to cross-gender identification as well.

        I’m not saying that cultural roles aren’t an issue here, just that they aren’t the only issue.

        1. Mary

          According to Lise Eliot in Pink Brain, Blue Brain, the statement that women have a larger corpus callosum is usually based on de Lacoste-Utamsing and Holloway (1982), which was based on a grand total of 13 brains (relying on Eliot’s summary here, not the source). Bishop and Wahlsten (1997) is a meta-analysis of 49 studies published since 1980, showing no difference in size of the corpus callosum, regardless of whether the size difference between male and female brains overall (mean male brains weigh between 8 and 11 percent more) is controlled for.

          I haven’t finished Pink Brain, Blue Brain yet, and I am not competent ultimately to judge her command of the literature, but it seems to be a reasonable guide to the real, verified sex differences between human brains early in life. (She, whose research career is founded on plasticity, believes that it is extremely difficult to determine anything about innate sex differences from adult brains, which have had decades of influence from society and physical environment.)

          de Lacoste-Utamsing, C., Holloway, R. L. (1982) “Sexual dimorphism in the human corpus callosum.” Science, 216, 1431–1432.

          Bishop KM, Wahlsten D (1997). “Sex differences in the human corpus callosum: myth or reality?”. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 21 (5): 581–601.

  20. viajera

    Well, as a female scientist who works with many male scientists (specifically, in field biology), I can tell you from my experience that even many adult male scientists do not really see women as scientists. Although there is certainly far more gender parity today than previously, especially at the lower level (undergraduate and graduate-level students, entry-level positions), men still dominate by far at the higher levels (professor, senior scientist). And many (not all, but too many) of these men tend to view women (especially at the lower levels, but even at the higher) as subordinate, or even as there for their own gratification and edification, especially on field stations where you’re all living and working together at a remote site away from spouses/boy- and girlfriends/etc. So while this is disappointing, it’s really not too surprising to me.

  21. Margaret DeLacy

    What I would like to see would be a project that took students to a different kind of workplace that did not have strong gender stereotypes associated with it–say the Post Office–and see what sort of “before” and “after” pictures the boys and girls drew and what they felt they learned from their visit. Perhaps they will learn that mail sorters are also ordinary people who have families and outside interests.

  22. Geek_Girl

    What a great site! I found this referred by Restructure and am looking forward to exploring the various articles in detail…Keep up the good work!

  23. Helen

    I wonder.
    In other contexts, how often do boys draw women/girls?
    How often do girls draw them?
    Could it be that boys draw boys because that’s what they draw — because they draw what they know and associate themselves with?
    Could it be that boys draw boys because, frankly, the only time they draw girls it’s sexy girls– what with the whole puberty thing going on? And they feel awkward drawing women, who, by the way, have breasts, for an assignment that a teacher will see?

    I do find the shift in what girls draw interesting, but I’m not sure we can draw the conclusion about boys unless we also see that they draw women in other roles that are otherwise gender neutral (Obviously, they’ll draw women as mothers, but how does it work for, say, accountants or doctors or lawyers or engineers or police officers or realtors?)

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