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What do scientists look like?

07/09/2010

Sociological Images made a post about a project where seventh graders were asked to draw pictures of scientists (and describe them too) both before and after a visit with some diverse scientists at Fermilab.  You can see the drawings and descriptions at the project’s website!

An analysis of the gender of the scientists depicted in the drawings (and other characteristics) was posted over at Restructure!, and here’s what they found:

  • 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.
  • 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”.)

The gender depiction is certainly interesting; I don’t think this particular experiment, with its small numbers, can make a stand-alone case for the importance of female role models for young women, but there are certainly other studies that make that case.  However, it’s interesting that all the boys always drew scientists as men, both before and after.  I think the response is “Hey, it’s natural for kids to draw what they most relate to, or put themselves in the picture.”  Sure, that might be the case if boys drew boys and girls grew girls, but that’s not what we have here.  Girls are expected to be able to relate to both boys and girls – in fact, it would be impossible not to, given that only 1 in 3 speaking characters in children’s media are girls!  The research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media showed that recently.  Think about the shows you used to watch as a kid.  How many characters were girls?  Sure, Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers had Gadget, who was awesome, but I couldn’t exactly ignore the 4 other Rescue Rangers who were all dudes.  Boys, however, have plenty of media where they can watch and relate to other boys; in fact, sometimes they are encouraged to do so.  A good example I can think of is the creation of Go, Diego, Go!, or at least the version of it I heard from a professor, because they wanted to create the male version of Dora the Explorer (he was actually a character on her show before getting his own show) for boys to watch.  Wait, why can’t boys watch a show about a girl, when I watch shows about boys all the time?  And even now, Disney changed their newest movie title from “Rapunzel” to “Twisted,” in order to attract a larger audience (of boys) by not creating a movie about a girl character, since The Princess and the Frog didn’t do so hot at the box office.  Despite the fact that the story of Rapunzel is in fact about Rapunzel.

On a related note about depictions of women in the media, I’ve recently become wary of any film that cannot pass the Bechdel Test.  The requirements for a movie are:

1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
That shouldn’t be THAT hard to do, right?  You’d be surprised how many mainstream movies (even kids movies) fail at that.  And plenty of the ones that pass are marginalized to the realm of “chick flicks,” that are apparently only for women to watch anyway.
So yes, this post about women in science just turned into women in the media.  But they are related, because they have to do with “male” as being the “default human,” which is certainly understandable given their prevalence in the media, especially for children.  But why should there be a default human in the first place?
But the non-gender related analysis of the drawings are interesting too.  To a certain extent, I understand why the kids would draw labcoats and such, even if they don’t really think all scientists wear labcoats, because it’s just an easy code to identify “Hey, it’s a scientist!”  But this does at least show that a lot of kids don’t really know what scientists do anyway – and why would you want to pursue a career if you don’t know what they do, or you misunderstand what they do?  It’s useful (for all kids) to know that not all scientists are old, stuffy, bald white dudes.  Also, I remember once reading an essay by a woman who told the story about how, after learning from science textbooks in school, thought (as a kid) that there was no science left to do, we know it all, that’s why it’s in textbooks.  It’s important that kids know that there’s lots of exciting science to do, cool people doing, and that they can be those cool people someday!
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