by Kate Lachance
figures by Rebecca Senft
Close your eyes.
Picture a scientist.
What does this scientist look like?
Beginning in the late 1950s, the stereotypical image of a scientist was of great interest to many anthropologists, including Dr. Margaret Mead and Dr. Rhoda Métraux. They conducted a survey of over 35,000 high school students in the United States, probing what the students believed a scientist to be. The responses were overwhelmingly consistent: Male. Caucasian. Middle-aged. Bearded. Bespectacled. Wearing a white lab coat. Writing in a black lab notebook. In a dark lab. Surrounded by vibrantly colored, bubbling liquids. This describes the stereotypical scientist.
Stereotypes of scientists begin at an early age
The study of scientist stereotypes was formalized in the 1970s and 1980s by Dr. David Wade Chambers. He developed the Draw-A-Scientist Test, which requires children to “draw a scientist.” These drawings were then formally analyzed for indicators of stereotype, including the scientist being male, Caucasian, and middle-aged, using a checklist. Because Dr. Chambers used drawings rather than a written description of a scientist’s attributes, he was also the first to assess the stereotypes about scientists held in children as young as six years old. Even elementary school students were drawing overwhelmingly stereotypical scientists – of the 4,807 drawings he collected, only 28 were female and none were African American.
Indeed, Chambers and other scientists that repeated his experiments later found that stereotypes about scientists develop at an incredibly early age and persist, independent of student identity. That is, a classroom full of female students will overwhelmingly draw male scientists, and underrepresented minority students overwhelmingly draw Caucasian scientists.
But does any of this really matter? If a little girl draws a picture of Albert Einstein when asked to draw a scientist, does that make her less likely to become a scientist? Absolutely.
Stereotype threat suppresses diversity in science
When young women are reminded, or worse if they internally believe, that they do not look like a stereotypical scientist, they are much less likely to become a scientist themselves. More generally, when anyone repeatedly encounters negative stereotypes against their identity, they are more likely to conform to that negative stereotype. This phenomenon is called stereotype threat, and was first described in 1995 by two social psychologists. Stereotype threat is pervasive, from African American students underperforming on standardized tests to women underperforming in high school math classes. Stereotype threat does not mean that these negative stereotypes are true, but rather that being reminded of a relevant negative stereotype causes anxiety about performance, hindering the ability to perform.
Stereotype threat then creates self-fulfilling prophecies: people feel anxiety about these negative stereotypes, and therefore conform to them. The Draw-A-Scientist Test reveals that children, from a very young age, have internalized stereotypes about scientists – namely, that scientists are male, Caucasian, and middle-aged. Evidence suggests that these stereotypes limit girls’ interest in science-related activities and careers. So, these stereotypes are reinforced by a lack of diversity among scientists.
And this theory materializes in reality. There is a dearth of women and minorities in science. In 2016, of all engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded, only 21% were awarded to women; for master’s degrees, 25% were for women, and for doctorates, 24% were for women. For minorities, these percentages were even lower: 22% for bachelor’s in any STEM subject, 13% for master’s, and 9% for doctorates. Shockingly, these low percentages reflect all racial and ethnic minorities, combined. Moreover, of all people working in science or engineering occupations in 2017, more than half were white males, and only 25% were women of any race.
Today’s lack of diversity among scientists creates a chicken-and-egg problem: the most prominent scientists are male, Caucasian, and middle-aged. This image is ingrained in the minds of small children. Stereotype threat makes it more difficult for young women and minority students to want to pursue and succeed at science, and so there continues to be an absence of female and minority scientists. This is not to say that we should shun the success or discourage the involvement of male, Caucasian, and middle-aged scientists. The only villain here is ignorance or apathy toward diversity in science.
Breaking the cycle
What can we do to break this cycle? One effective intervention is to give young students diverse scientist role models. In one study, a classroom was exposed to female scientists in several different ways: the material discussed in science class was connected to relevant historical female scientists, other landmark discoveries by female scientists were emphasized, and female scientists from the community came into the classroom to discuss their work and answer students’ questions. After this role model intervention, both male and female students in the class had a significantly increased positive attitude toward women in science compared to a classroom that was not exposed to the intervention. The same type of intervention has been shown to be effective for racial minority scientists as well. Indeed, around the world, having diverse scientist role-models increases interest and persistence in STEM. Based on these studies, countless programs to incorporate scientists from diverse backgrounds into public school curricula have been launched.
As studies identify other effective interventions and more programs emerge to encourage children of all backgrounds to enter the sciences, hopefully the cycle will be broken. When I was in elementary school and asked to draw a scientist, I drew Albert Einstein. Maybe the next generation will draw someone who looks more like them.
Kate Lachance is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics program at Harvard University.
Rebecca Senft is a fifth-year Program in Neuroscience Ph.D. student at Harvard University who studies the circuitry and function of serotonin neurons in the mouse.
For More Information:
- This article summarizes the main findings of a retrospective study, examining trends in results from Draw-a-Scientist Tests administered over the last 50 years.
- Use this worksheet to conduct your own Draw-a-Scientist Test.
- Explore the most recent statistics about diversity among scientists collected by the National Science Foundation.