#modphys 11/180: Draw-a-Scientist

The famous draw-a-scientist test asks students to draw a picture of a scientist. The pictures are then scanned for indicators such as lab jackets, science equipment, and signals of wealth. The results over the past 50 years have been persistent and, in many ways, disappointing.

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Nerdy White Males

The vast majority of depictions are male. From 18 students in my 6th grade class, 14 depictions were explicitly male. 3 were female and, keeping with trends, none of the female depictions were drawn by male students.

The scientists are also depicted with a rich assortment of nerd symbols: 5 of the 18 had glasses (other than safety goggles) and 6 were wearing a bow tie. The bow tie numbers may be high because, as one student explained, many of the images were probably inspired by me.

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Persistent Stereotypes

To probe the depth of this stereotype, I repeated the activity with my grade 11 physics class (45% female today). This time, however, I primed the students by doing two quick activities:

1. I showed them a picture of Maryam Mirzakhani (2014 Fields medalist) and asked them to write down her possible job.
2. I showed them a picture of Fabiola Gianotti (ATLAS spokesperson) celebrating at the LHC with three male colleagues and asked the students to write down which person they thought was the leader.

In both cases about half the class got the correct answer, which I confirmed but upon which I did not elaborate. Thus primed, surely the 11 students would envision their scientists as potentially being female.

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Alas, we drew 9 men and 1 woman. This time, Einstein was acknowledged as an inspiration by two students. Tellingly, each of the 11 scientists were depicted wearing glasses (not safety goggles).

The persistent stereotypes, which seem only to be reinforced as students travel through school, are damaging. The “nerd” stigma drives many from pursuing STEM careers and pushes those who do to the sidelines of society. The “male” stigma does the same.

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