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Girls & Women

American Kids Are Starting to Draw More Scientists as Female

Courtesy of Aaron Burden, Unsplashed

You can’t be what you can’t imagine.

It used to be that an overwhelming majority of American children imagined the archetypal scientist to be male. But a new report says that’s finally changing, suggesting a trend toward improved gender representation in the sciences.

Researchers at Northwestern University analyzed 78 studies conducted over five decades, all of which asked schoolchildren to do one simple thing: draw a scientist. When the researchers broke down the numbers, they found that, although a large majority of children in every study drew men, more children in recent decades have been drawing female scientists.

In one of the earliest studies dating back to the ‘60s, just 28 of nearly 5,000 boys and girls drew women when asked to draw a scientist. And all the children who did were girls.

On the other hand, in “Draw-A-Scientist” studies conducted from 1985 to 2017, about 28% of nearly 21,000 kids drew women, though girls were more than eight times as likely to draw female scientists than boys.

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“Given that children might see a greater representation of female scientists [today] and are more often seeing female scientists in media marketed toward children, we wanted to know: How are those cultural changes influencing children’s images? Have children’s stereotypes changed along with them?” David Miller, one of the Northwestern report’s authors, told TIME. “The basic finding is that, indeed, yes.”

The study’s findings also reinforced an idea popular among gender equality advocates — that gender stereotypes are learned and reinforced rather than innate.

According to the research, children under six tend to draw male and female scientists about equally often, and only begin associating scientists with men as they get older.

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For researchers, the study’s findings are encouraging, but they’re also a renewed call to action. Gender representation in science is moving toward equality, but the field is still largely male-dominated. Except for health sciences, where women are more equally represented, only about 20% of published scientists in the US are women.

And children pick up on that gender disparity.

"I think it reflects the environment children are in," Miller told Mashable. "Women do indeed remain a minority in several science fields. If you look at children’s media, there’s still more male than female scientists depicted. If children are exposed in this environment, we shouldn’t expect them to draw equal numbers of female and male scientists."

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