What do kids think a scientist "looks like" nowadays?

It's a question David Miller, a researcher and psychology doctoral candidate at Northwestern University, wanted to find out. So he started digging.

Miller and a team of researchers looked at 78 "draw-a-scientist" studies spanning the previous five decades. As the name suggests, students in kindergarten through grade 12 were asked to draw a scientist and answer some basic questions.

Some of their responses throughout the years, by the way, were quite adorable.



Image courtesy of Richard Jones and Dr. Lori Fulton at University of Hawaii at Manoa.


More important than any cuteness factor, however, was the noticeable shift in what kinds of scientists children have drawn since the 1960s.

Over the course of five decades, an increasing number of children drew scientists who were women.

Image courtesy of Richard Jones and Dr. Lori Fulton at University of Hawaii at Manoa.

These findings by Miller and his team at Northwestern, newly published in the journal Child Development, led to encouraging results for anyone hoping more girls may be taking interest — or, at the very least, may potentially see themselves — in STEM-related hobbies or careers.

The earliest study Miller analyzed took place between 1966 and 1977, when an overwhelming number of elementary-aged students drew men as scientists: Less than 1% of the nearly 5,000 drawings depicted women. More recent research, however, reflects a sharp contrast in that perception: In studies between 1985 and 2016, 28% of children, on average, drew scientists that were women.

Image courtesy of Vasilia Christidou.

The more recent drawings suggest stereotypes linking only men to science-related fields has weakened substantially over time in the U.S., researchers concluded.

"Given this change in stereotypes, girls in recent years might now develop interests in science more freely than before," Miller, the lead author of the study, said in a press release.

Image courtesy of Richard Jones and Dr. Lori Fulton at University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Clearly, there's still progress to be had.

28% is not nearly a high-enough figure. Backward ideas about who can and should become scientists are still being absorbed by kids growing up in the 21st century. Boys are still less likely to draw women scientists than girls are, the research found. And older kids are more likely to draw men than younger ones are, suggesting stereotypes may become more entrenched as kids age.

Furthermore, when it comes to skin color, the overwhelming majority of kids drew scientists interpreted as being white. Although, Miller noted to the The Atlantic, race and ethnicity were more difficult to track, given kids used various colors (or no colors) to draw their scientists throughout the years.

Still, when it comes to gender, the findings show true progress.

Image courtesy of Vasilia Christidou.

The study shows why representation matters.

"It’s optimistic that children’s stereotypes change as gender roles change in society too," Miller said. When girls see doctors, engineers, or computer scientists that are women — whether it be in their own personal lives or on TV and film screens — it can have a powerful effect.

"Children draw what they see,” Toni Schmader of the University of British Columbia at Vancouver told Nature. And when girls can see themselves as anything this world has to offer, we're making meaningful progress.

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