Thursday, June 24, 2010

Perceptions of scientists

What an interesting little study! @Szarka tweeted me this display of 7th graders' perceptions of scientists before and after a visit to a lab. He wrote:
Interesting how many girls went from drawing men to drawing women...

I initially read this as, "Interesting how many students went from drawing men to drawing women." As a result, when I looked, I saw fewer women scientist drawings than I expected. The biggest change I saw was the before pictures were wearing lab coats, and the after pictures weren't. So I did what any good scientist does, and I actually counted. Here's what I found:

Of 14 girls in the class, 5 drew female scientists before the visit. One of those drew a male scientist after the visit, the rest drew women again. (Actually, the one who went from male to female might just be me misjudging the drawing. It's Amanda's and it's hard to tell. Decide for yourself. Amanda also wrote, "Maybe I can be a scientist," so it doesn't seem as though the field trip ruined her for science. Also, one girl drew a female before and a male & female pair after. How politic.)

Nine girls in the class drew male scientists before the visit, and of those, 4 drew women scientists after the visit. (One after drawing, from Claire, is hard to tell. I counted it as male, but see for yourself.) So that's pretty good, right? What's more is that the written descriptions make a point of saying that anybody can be a scientist. It's clear what the scientists at the lab talked about when they met the kids.

Now, the boys. There were 17 boys in the class. Every one of them drew a male scientist before, and a male scientist after. Every last one.

Now, maybe this is just my interpretation of those results. But it looks to me like girls are comfortable thinking of themselves as scientists. Especially after the visit, when they wrote about how scientists love their jobs but also have active lives outside the lab. These girls don't see a barrier to becoming scientists. That's great!

But they're going to find a barrier when the get to a certain level. Here's why:

None of the boys imagined a female scientist. They got the lab coats off, and they look more like normal people, but they were still male. I think this is part of the gender barrier in academic science. As much as women can prove that they're capable (even excellent) scientists, they're somewhat invisible to their male colleagues. They have a hard time being recognized and promoted. Because of the competition in the field and the struggle younger women scientists observe, few continue in the field after graduate school. (At the graduate level, there are more women than men in biology.)

Now, I would argue that boys tend to identify with boys, and girls with girls. But still, some of the girls drew men. None of the boys drew women. If perceptions were equal, the drawings would be equal.



  1. I love this post, so I tweeted about it as @Inklingmagazine.