Scientists are “normal” people, children discover

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

BEFORE AFTER
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.
Beth


BEFORE AFTER
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.
Amy
BEFORE AFTER
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
Marisa

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?

Here are more statistics:

  • 94% of the children portrayed a scientist wearing a lab coat in the “before” drawings, but only 3% (1 person) portrayed a scientist wearing a lab coat in the “after” drawing.
  • Among the “after” drawings and descriptions of scientists, 29% of children explicitly noted that scientists were “normal people” or that a scientist is a “normal person” or “regular person”. Among the “after” drawings, 65% suggested or explicitly noted that scientists were normal people (e.g., they noted that everyone/anyone can be a scientist; that a scientist can have hobbies, friends, and a family; or that a scientist “is a person with a life”.)

Not only do seventh graders have these stereotypes about scientists, but it appears that most adults do as well. Perhaps the anti-science sentiment among some adults arises from the common stereotype that scientists are elitist white male geniuses who are not “regular” people, which was impressed into their minds at a tender age and reinforced through years of mass media consumption. While it may be true that scientists can have very different life experiences, the same can be said for any other occupation or social group. There is nothing inherently male about science or scientists. Stereotypes and discrimination exist among scientific communities, just like in “regular” communities.

UPDATE:

Scientific Stereotype:

A fairly formal assay of children’s views of scientists was undertaken recently by a team at Leicester University in England and Australia’s Curtin University of Technology. Although the results have not yet been published, based on preliminary analysis the main conclusion from the research is that children think of scientists as boring white men with glasses, beards, and strange hair. According to lead researcher Tina Jarvis, director of Leicester’s School of Education, many children say they do not want to be a scientist because scientists never have fun!

Jarvis and colleagues, along with Lionie Rennie of Curtin, studied the responses of more than 4,000 children in Britain and Australia over the last eight years and concluded that the stereotypes persist, at least among six- to eight-year-olds. 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.

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33 Responses to “Scientists are “normal” people, children discover”

  1. thewhatifgirl Says:

    I’d hypothesize that boys have already been trained by this age to ignore women alongside things that are associated with women, so seeing a woman in an actual scientific setting wouldn’t register with them because she’s “just a woman”. Perhaps this can also be blamed at least in part on the media stereotype that is depicted in all the left-hand pictures above. Combine the stereotype and the invisibility of women to even young males, and we are left with an impervious construction.

    …Not sure how you would test for that, but that’s not my realm of expertise anyway.

  2. Scientists are “normal” people, some children discover | Geek Feminism Blog Says:

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

  3. isthisreallyagoodidea Says:

    With the currently increasing difficulty of young males to keep up in the performance in schoolsystems with girls i wonder if its really even a good idea to challenge the male association of science as a male-thing. lets not destroy their selfconfidence any further shall we ? because we should all know what males do that have no perspective, no selfconfidence – they turn to violence. of course you can control that up to some point by singling out the most violent ones, but at some point the develelopment will be so broad and unstoppable and affect so many males that they wont just use sticks, guns, bats for violence, but form massive political fascistic movements that use weapons of mass destruction to reduce the population of the percieved weaker civilizations that try to archieve their precious gender balance. seems too far fetched ? look at history. i have the strong suspicion this is exactly what happened before. only next time there will be lots of nukes and bioweapons involved.

  4. Los niños reconocen a los científicos como gente normal « La Ciencia y sus Demonios Says:

    […] en la mano para que sea más divertido. Un “experimento” muy curioso es el que he visto en esta página web en el que se lleva a un grupo de niños de visita al lugar donde trabajan varios científicos. […]

  5. CCS Says:

    Well, your idea about the different gender impacts may be right. But if you crunch the numbers, you see that out of the 14 girls 3 (three!) girls drew a man before and a woman after. And I would assume purely by chance you chose those three girls for the drawings you posted here. So while your hypothesis may be right, IMO your “data” don’t support it sufficiently.

  6. Stefan Says:

    For boys there is also a 58% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings! I’d say it’s even a 59% increase…

  7. einer der besten Beiträge zur Gender-Debatte « LifeScientology – Ein Blog mit Bio-Chemie Says:

    […] PDRTJS_settings_651231_post_231 = { "id" : "651231", "unique_id" : "wp-post-231", "title" : "einer+der+besten+Beitr%C3%A4ge+zur+Gender-Debatte", "item_id" : "_post_231", "permalink" : "http%3A%2F%2Flifescientology.wordpress.com%2F2010%2F06%2F25%2Feiner-der-besten-beitrage-zur-gender-debatte%2F" } http://restructure.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/scientists-are-normal-people-children-discover/ […]

  8. thewhatifgirl Says:

    Wow, apparently people have something against untested hypotheses. It’s not a statement of fact, people.

    isthisreallyagoodidea, considering women only make up a disproportionate number of degree-earners in some fields of science and don’t even get a proportionate number of jobs once they graduate, I think guys can avoid throwing a fit for awhile.

    CCS, she chose pictures that were illustrative of the change. Since this blog doesn’t purport to be scientific, but only talks about scientific reports, there is no need for her to choose at random, and it’s ridiculous of you to suggest that she should.

  9. CCS Says:

    “Wow, apparently people have something against untested hypotheses.”
    Well, not me. However, one should mention the reasons for picking the hypothesis and what it could help answering.

    “It looks like […] it has a strong impact on challenging girls’ gender stereotypes about scientists.”

    If the author claims something like that and confirms it by cherrypicking, I feel the strong urge to disagree.
    After looking a bit into the other blog entries, it seems like this claim goes along with the general “aim” of this blog. I would like to emphasize once more that I don’t disagree with the claim, I just don’t like cherrypicking in order to strenghten one’s own view, it makes it less serious.
    But please, tell me where my view is faulty, if you like.

  10. qnbs7 Says:

    meh.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    This: “Among boys (17 in total), 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “before” drawing, and 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “after” drawing.”

    doesn’t quite lead to this: “It looks like a visit to Fermilab has no impact on boys’ gender stereotypes about scientists”

    I would hope that the boys on the trip at least got the idea that both men and women can be scientists. If they were asked to draw a *group* of scientists and the boys drew all men, then I think that conclusion would be warranted. I’m hoping that the boys post-field trip would include at least a token woman and token racial minority in their group drawing, even if when asked to draw a single scientist, they still revert to stereotypes.

  12. Jessica Says:

    This: “Among boys (17 in total), 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “before” drawing, and 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “after” drawing.”

    doesn’t quite lead to this: “It looks like a visit to Fermilab has no impact on boys’ gender stereotypes about scientists”

    I would hope that the boys on the trip at least got the idea that both men and women can be scientists. If they were asked to draw a *group* of scientists and the boys drew all men, then I think that conclusion would be warranted. I’m hoping that the boys post-field trip would include at least a token woman and token racial minority in their group drawing, even if when asked to draw a single scientist, they still revert to stereotypes.

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  15. Janpetter Says:

    I am a man, and I think I can explain why 100% of boys chose to draw male scientists in both cases. It is because they know there are male scientists, and they project their own sex into their drawings. In the same way as most boys choose male gaming characters when playing consoles they make drawings of men when asked to draw someone with a certain profession. I dont think it has anything to do with sexism, and that it is something we have to combat. It is just the natural way for boys to draw.

    As for why girls choose to draw men is probably because they are under the impression that scientists are mostly men, and they want to draw how they perceive reality.

  16. Lucy Says:

    I looked at the pictures and wondered if maybe they just drew the scientist they met? They would probably have been paired up with someone and since there’s a shortage of women, maybe the women got paired with the girls?

    David drew a picture of a man saying “Hello I’m a regular person!” which made me think perhaps the scientists were asserting their normality a fair bit during the day, and then the students left thinking scientists are people who want everyone to know how normal they are. Nice pictures.

  17. rosie Says:

    Lucy: I agree with you, perhaps they really drew the persons they met. It also reflects in the drawings “after” without labcoats – it looks like the people they were talking to simply had no labcoats on (hopefully not inside the laboratory!).

    I am a woman scientist, and the overall impression I have is that there are a lot of women that work in science, but relatively few of them are in high positions, be it companies or academia.

  18. Restructure! Says:

    Janpetter,

    But why would boys draw their gender and girls draw something else? You are saying that boys and girls have different motivations, but you are not explaining why. For example, in the after drawings, why would boys not draw reality, and why would girls not draw their gender?

    rosie,

    Why would physicists need lab coats?

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  21. Daniel Hemmens Says:

    But why would boys draw their gender and girls draw something else? You are saying that boys and girls have different motivations, but you are not explaining why. For example, in the after drawings, why would boys not draw reality, and why would girls not draw their gender?

    I don’t think it’s a question of boys and girls having different motivations, so much as them having the *same* sets of motivations, but their manifesting differently.

    What I *suspect* this shows (insofar as a small study can show anything) is that when you ask a person to draw a member of a particular profession they’re very likely to draw *either* their own gender *or* they’ll draw what they percieve to be the “default” for that profession (so male for scientists) – obviously people are individuals and lots of different factors will affect lots of different people (a boy’s older sister might be a nuclear physicist, for example so he might draw a woman). In general, though, boys are gong to have both motivations pulling in the same direction. You’re a boy, you think most scientists are boys, so you draw a boy scientist. Conversely girls have both motivations pulling in opposite directions, so it’s more likely that meeting real scientists will change what they draw. You’re a girl, but you draw a boy scientists because you assume scientists have to be boys, but then you meet real scientists and find that scientists can be girls too, so you draw a girl scientist that maybe you might have wanted to draw to begin with.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily bad (except in the sense that it’s part of a general bad situation) that girls were more strongly affected by the trip than boys. It suggests to me that maybe the three girls who did change their drawings were three girls who realised (when they otherwise might not have) that Being A Scientist was something that they, personally could do, which is something the boys would, of course, have taken for granted.

    Why would physicists need lab coats?

    Because lab coats are *totally awesome*.

  22. Ecotretas Says:

    I’ve put up a table with the comments before and after the close “encounter”. Please check it out at http://ecotretas.blogspot.com/2010/07/os-cientistas-e-as-criancas.html, as it is a real shame!

    Ecotretas

  23. What do scientists look like? « A Scientist and a Woman Says:

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  24. Scientists Says:

    Note that a very sizable part of the boys drew the same character twice (Very noticiable in the drawings by James). Others drew the same character but removed the beard/baldness/glasses.

    Given that the sample was as low as 17 boys I can’t consider this meaninful.

  25. Samia Says:

    1) When I initially read about this, I couldn’t help but reflect on FermiLab’s terrible handling of sexual harassment complaints filed by female engineers over the past couple of years. Kind of puts the female representation issue into perspective…clearly the power structures at these facilities still needs some retuning.
    2) Those are some really crappy drawings. These kids are in 7th grade? Jeez.

  26. Who Knows? Maybe I can be a Scientist! « Kera's Blog Says:

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  27. Martin Says:

    There are 75 million children (ages 0-17) in the United States, so there are about 4.16 million 7th graders. Sampling 31 students gives you a margin of error of 18%.

    But given the huge disparities between boys and girls in this small sample, that’s enough to make it significant. For example, we would expect, since 0% of the boys changed the gender of their drawings, that in the *best* case scenario, only 18% would in the entire population.

  28. More oil drilling science … why bother? | Climatide Says:

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  29. Anonymous Says:

    This teacher is really nerdy, but unfortunately fails at doing so. Too much bias.

  30. #19 Jahresrückblick 2010 « knallhart weich! Says:

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  31. anonymous Says:

    There’s a version of the stereotype that likely comes from movies and other media. On the other hand, there are some realities. The types of persons that go into certain kinds of sciences might not solely be dependent on opportunity or on their imagination of what is possible for them career-wise.

    I’m a cultural anthropologist. Many anthropology departments are quite divided between the more “science” type and the more “humanities” oriented types. What you will find is that on the science end (especially biological anthropology), you will see a mix of men and women, but you will rarely see a minority. In fact, I never met a US minority in biological anthropology. Not one in all these years. I’m sure there are statistics to support my assertion that underrepresented minorities are especially not represented in this area.

    In archeology which is the other science anthropology, there certainly are more men than women but the number of minorities is quite limited.

    In addition, with a few notable exceptions, most of the people I know in bio anthro are “squares” – perhaps not the nutty professor in the white lab coat, but they seem to be people who are lacking in “people skills.” Perhaps they are drawn to the type of science that reduces human behavior to anatomy because they are the type of people with insufficient empathy to see that science is only one tool in understanding human behavior. The obsession with reducing human behavior to anatomy in some cases might be borne from their own deficiencies in human relationships. I’m not kidding either.

    I would suggest that minorities are not attracted to sciences heavily vested in functionalism, where human behavior is reduced to anatomy. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll guess that the number of minorities (from underrepresented groups) in cognitive neuroscience for example is also going to be very small.

    I know there are a lot of cool scientists out there and I don’t mean to reinforce stereotypes, but questioning why people go into sciences would probably explain why there is a certain view of the sciences among underrepresented minorities.

  32. Restructure! Says:

    I would suggest that minorities are not attracted to sciences heavily vested in functionalism, where human behavior is reduced to anatomy.

    You appear to be suggesting that minorities have some kind of biologically inherited characteristics which make them less likely to be interested in science, which is odd, since you are a cultural anthropologist.

    I don’t know for sure, but I’ll guess that the number of minorities (from underrepresented groups) in cognitive neuroscience for example is also going to be very small.

    This is a tautology. Of course underrepresented groups in cognitive neuroscience are underrepresented in cognitive neuroscience.

  33. Myths about Girls, Math, and Science « Restructure! Says:

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