What do you imagine a scientist to look like? A pyrotechnical, slightly chubby, pale bald man? Perhaps a little nutty with very few social skills?
Well, I have had the amazing opportunity to have so many friends in science, math, and engineering who look nothing like Einstein.
This post was taken from this more thorough post from Contexts.org. A 7th grade class had a similar opportunity of visiting the Department of Energy’s Fermilab as part of a program called Beauty and Charm. Here’s a description of the program given from the teachers:
During this field trip docents lead the group to the 15th Floor where they can see experimental areas from the windows, look at a large site model and more…They spend time at the Lederman Science Center with our collection of hands-on exhibits that explain the ideas, tools and methods of Fermilab science, and they meet with a physicist or engineer for Q&A. Usually the scientist brings something from his/her work to show the students…Students are free to ask any questions they like. Most teachers have the students prepare a few questions before they come.
What we changed for this field trip was the before and after descriptions and small group sessions for each student to meet with two of three physicists rather than one large group session. We deliberately chose a typical white male, a young female and an African American physicist. We let the students and physicist take their discussion where they wanted.
In their initial drawings and descriptions, most of the children described the scientists as white, unsociable, and unbelievably intelligent. Their descriptions placed the scientists into a mythical elite category of superheroes with an unrealistic understanding of math and science – something that each of the students felt he/she did not possess.
Although the pictures largely showed male scientists, they were generally genderless, meaning, other than their short hair and masculine frame there was no references to anything gender-specific (such as make-up or football).
Post-field trip descriptions reveal scientists to come in all shapes and sizes. In nearly all of these drawings and descriptions, students were amazed to learn:
- Male scientists had mostly male gender-specific hobbies like sports and outdoor activities
- Women could be scientists
- Scientists were “normal” people with families and hobbies
- Scientists loved science and worked hard because of this love rather than possessing an unimaginable scientific superpower
The author of this post at Restructure! compiled the following statistics about the Fermilab experiment:
- Among girls (14 in total), 36% portrayed a female scientist in the “before” drawing, and 57% portrayed a female scientist in the “after” drawing.
- Among boys (17 in total), 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “before” drawing, and 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “after” drawing.
It looks like a visit to Fermilab has no impact on boys’ gender stereotypes about scientists, but it has a strong impact on challenging girls’ gender stereotypes about scientists. For girls, there was a 58% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings; for boys, there was a 0% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings.
- 94% of the children portrayed a scientist wearing a lab coat in the “before” drawings, but only 3% (1 person) portrayed a scientist wearing a lab coat in the “after” drawing.
- Among the “after” drawings and descriptions of scientists, 29% of children explicitly noted that scientists were “normal people” or that a scientist is a “normal person” or “regular person”. Among the “after” drawings, 65% suggested or explicitly noted that scientists were normal people (e.g., they noted that everyone/anyone can be a scientist; that a scientist can have hobbies, friends, and a family; or that a scientist “is a person with a life”.)
The author also proposed this excellent question, in light of the first two gendered statistics: “If boys grow up to be men, and empirical evidence has no effect on males’ gender stereotypes about scientists, how do we challenge males’ association of science with maleness?” It would seem that these stereotypes won’t change until these stereotypes are challenged in the media.
Check out the drawings:
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