A woman scientist? Kids are starting to believe

woman scientist

In studies with thousands of kids over several decades, scientists have asked kids to draw a picture of what they think a scientist looks like. Overwhelmingly, kids think of a man when they think of a scientist. Times, however, are changing. A study published just this month shows that kids think of women as scientists now more than ever before, and it may be partly due to changes in how the media portrays women.

The study conducted what’s called a “meta analysis.” This is a fancy way of saying they looked at all the studies related to kids’ perceptions of scientists and ran some fancy statistical tests to look at trends in the research. The study found that based on 78 studies involving more than 20,000 kids who were asked to draw a picture of a scientist, kids drew female scientists significantly more in recent decades than they did 20 or 30 years ago. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, children drew scientists as male more than 99% of the time. But between 1985 and 2016, that number dropped to 72%–a 27% increase in the number of kids drawing a female scientist. While the change isn’t as big as might be hoped for, it’s a big step in the right direction.

Interestingly, it appears that the changes are being driven by girls’ perceptions of themselves. On average, girls depicted scientists as female 42% of the time, compared to boys at 4%. In other words, research show that girls are increasingly likely to see themselves as scientists, and media may have something to do with it. The study cited research showing that media (such as children’s TV shows, science textbooks, and magazines) are increasingly portraying women as scientists. If this is the case, we may have Grey’s Anatomy and Odd Squad to thank for helping young girls see science as a possible career for them.

One somewhat disheartening finding from the study is that in kindergarten, kids drew scientists as male and female at roughly the same rate, but by the time they reached high school they drew male scientists much more than female scientists (at a rate of 4 to 1). Something seems to be happening in elementary school and middle school to change kids’ perceptions of women. So, we still have work to do in order to help girls believe they can be anything they want to be. Especially in the formative years. We still need to reverse the gendered notion of brilliance. While change is slow, it’s happening, and I think parents can play a big role in hastening these changes in our own children through the conversations we have with them about their potential and their intrinsic worth.

To be honest, I don’t care if my daughters (all four of them) become scientists. I don’t care if they become ballerinas. What I do care about is whether or not they believed they could be either if they wanted to be. I hope they get that message from the media. But more importantly, I hope they get it from me.

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