Kids Are Drawing More Scientists as Women — But Still Just 30 Percent of the Time

Drawing courtesy of Vasilia Christidou

Kids are increasingly picturing women as scientists. When researchers in the 1970s asked children to draw what they thought a scientist looked like, just 28 out of 5,000 study participants sketched a woman — 0.6 percent. Today, that number has increased to 30 percent, according to a new analysis published in the journal Child Development.

The findings indicate that children’s stereotypes of science as a male-dominated field are changing, the researchers said, coinciding with an increase in the number of women entering the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. In the United States, for example, women earned just 19 percent of chemistry degrees in 1966. In 2015, that number had jumped to 48 percent, reported The Atlantic.

The uptick in female scientist drawings also corresponds with more women being depicted as scientists on television shows and in movies, magazines, and other media.

“It’s optimistic that children’s stereotypes change as gender roles change in society too,” said the study’s lead author David Miller, a psychology Ph. D. candidate at Northwestern University.

The new analysis combined data from 78 studies over five decades, surveying more than 20,000 U.S. children from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Researchers did find, however, that traditional stereotypes creep back in around elementary and middle school. Kids around age 5 tend to draw male and female scientists equally. But as they get older, children increasingly draw scientists as men. Around age 10 to 11, even girls drew male scientists 70 percent of the time, and by age 16 they drew male scientists 75 percent of the time.

“These changes across children’s age likely reflect that children’s exposure to male scientists accumulates during development” David Uttal, a co-author of the study and a professor of education and psychology at Northwestern, said in a statement. “To build on cultural changes, teachers and parents should present children with multiple examples of female and male scientists across many contexts such as science courses, television shows, and informal conversations.”