US kids’ doodles of scientists reveal changing gender stereotypes

Experiments that ask children to draw a researcher show a greater proportion of women in sketches over time.

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Children's tendency to envision a generic scientist as a man or a woman changes with age.Vladimir Godnik/Getty

When US children are asked to draw a scientist, today roughly one in three will doodle a woman. That’s a major shift since the 1960s and 1970s, when fewer than 1 in 100 kids would depict a female scientist, a new study finds. But although stereotypes that associate men with science seem to have weakened over time, most US children still see science as a male profession.

To investigate how children’s drawings have changed, a team of psychology researchers combined and analysed the results of 78 “draw-a-scientist” studies that examined doodles made between 1966 and 2016 (see ‘Sketching scientists’). Together, these analyses have asked more than 20,000 US kids from kindergarten to high school to depict a researcher.

Drawing of female scientists by 10-11 yr old pupils.

A girl between the ages of 10 and 11 drew this female scientist.Credit: Vasilia Christidou

In the 1960s and 1970s, 99.4% of children drew a male scientist. That proportion dropped to an average of 72% in studies published between 1985 and 2016. By the 2010s, about one in three drawings portrayed a female scientist.

This shift in perception is probably the result of an increasing number of women becoming scientists, and mass media — such as television shows and children’s magazines — featuring female scientists more often, says lead author David Miller, a psychology researcher at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The findings were published in Child Development on 20 March1.

Source: Ref 1.

The researchers also looked at how stereotypes about scientists change as kids grow up. From the 1980s onwards, an average of 30% of girls and 83% of boys aged 6 sketched male scientists. But by age 16, 75% of girls and 98% of boys drew male researchers. These results suggest that children — especially older ones — tend to link science with men, probably because women remain under-represented in some fields, such as physics, Miller says.

Drawing of female scientists by 10-11 yr old pupils.

This female chemist was drawn by a girl between the ages of 10 and 11.Credit: Vasilia Christidou

“Children draw what they see,” says Toni Schmader, a psychological scientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. The findings suggest that kids need to learn more about women's roles in science, because stereotypes can affect what children think they can and cannot do, Schmader says. “If we can change these representations, young girls might more easily be able to envision a future for themselves in science.”

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  1. 1.

    Miller, D. I., Nolla, K. M., Eagly, A. H. & Uttal, D. H. Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.13039 (2018).

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