Donders Wonders Blog

What is a scientist?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Gender-science stereotypes have started to change as more women enter scientific and technical careers, but the image of a male scientist still prevails.

The image of a scientist in previous decades

If I ask you to picture a scientist, what is the first image that comes to your mind? The most (stereo)typical thing to imagine would be a man. Someone with slightly grey hair, or with a lot of grey and messy hair… perhaps someone like Albert Einstein. Other attributes that characterize a scientist and their work environment would be a lab coat, glasses and a room full of peculiar instruments. At least, this is the image reported from a study conducted in 1957 on the perception of scientists, where about 35,000 high school students were asked to write essays about scientists.  

In another, now classic, 1983 study by David Chambers, rather than give written descriptions, pupils were asked to draw a scientist. Chambers developed the Draw-a-Scientist-Test (DAST), which has since been widely adopted to understand young children’s (kindergarten to primary school) perceptions of scientists. Researchers give the DAST to children and then score the drawings for whether they contain specific attributes, including:

  • a lab coat
  • eyeglasses
  • facial hair
  • symbols of research (e.g. lab equipment)
  • symbols of knowledge (e.g. books)
  • technology (e.g. “products” of science)
  • relevant captions (e.g. “eureka”)

Chambers found that with increasing age, children produced more and more of the prototypical images of a scientist: a white male in a lab coat wearing glasses and a beard.

The image of a scientist in current times

What does recent research have to tell us about how young children imagine scientists? DAST has been around for more than 50 years and many studies have used it. A recent meta-analysis that surveyed 78 studies has shown that a growing number of children, especially girls, draw a scientist as a female. Finally, collective perceptions have begun to swerve to the female side. In earlier decades, 99% of children would have drawn a scientist as a man; this number has now dropped to 72%. This is still a lot, but changes do not happen overnight. It is also interesting that stereotyping starts to kick in during the primary school years. Children in kindergarten draw as many male scientists as female ones.

Myths that need to be destroyed

Girls can collectively drive a change in perceptions as they start to imagine themselves as someone who can embark on a science path. Perhaps this change will contribute to ultimately equalizing the number of males and females in STEM subjects, in which women are underrepresented and in which the increase of women is still very slow.

Another myth that has to be destroyed is that one needs to be brilliant to be a scientist. Working in science requires many different abilities and skills, for instance, persistence and spending long hours. Science is more like a marathon than a sprint, and those who are able to persevere through its challenges are ultimately the ones to go on and make interesting discoveries. Perhaps with the end of all of these misconceptions, more people will easily imagine a scientist as a woman.

Original language: English
Author: Julija Vaitonyte
Buddy: Christienne Gonzales Damatac
Editor: Marisha Manahova
Translator: Felix Klaassen
Editor Translation: Wessel Hieselaar

Picture obtained via Pixabay

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