Children becoming more likely to draw women scientists but older kids picture them as men, study shows

A new study shows more children in the United States are drawing female scientists than ever before, but as they get older they tend to draw more male scientists, meaning they draw what they see.

The findings show kids "are in touch with their world" because more women have become scientists in recent decades, said Alice Eagly, psychology professor at Northwestern University and co-author of the research that assessed children's views of scientists.

"The fact that children draw fewer women and more men as they get older also shows they're in touch with their world because … as they learn, science tends to be more male dominated," Eagly said. "They would pick up on the culture and draw more men."

In the study called the Development of Children's Gender-Science Stereotypes, Northwestern University researchers reviewed 78 draw-a-scientist studies of school-age children spanning five decades. Their research was published Tuesday in the journal Child Development.

Landmark draw-a-scientist study

The researchers' interest began with a landmark study from 1966-1977 that found less than one per cent or 28 of 4,807 children drew a female scientist. But in later studies from 1985-2016, 28 per cent of kids drew a female scientist.

The change is consistent with more women becoming scientists in recent decades, the researchers said. From 1960-2013, the study found the percentage of women among employed U.S. scientists climbed:

- To 49 per cent from 28 per cent in biological sciences.

- To 35 per cent from 28 per cent in chemistry.

- To 11 per cent from three per cent in physics and astronomy.

Children's stereotypes of scientists have weakened over time because female scientists are being depicted more often in children's TV shows, popular magazines and science textbooks, the researchers said.

For example, in the 1960s, women and girls made up only 13 per cent of images in science feature stories in Highlights for Children, a popular kids' magazine. But by the 2000s, this had risen to 44 per cent of images.

The study's lead author, David Miller – who is a PhD candidate in psychology at Northwestern University – said that there have been prior studies suggesting that stereotypes linking science with men might shape whether girls are interested in science-related activities, careers and courses.

Girls develop interest 'more freely'

"Given that prior research and given the change in stereotypes that we saw over time, these results suggest that girls in recent years might now develop these interests more freely than before," Miller told CBC News. "So that's one important implication."

But the study also found that as children aged they drew more male scientists. The data analysis showed that in kindergarten they drew roughly equal percentages of female and male scientists, but at 14 and 15 they drew more male scientists by an average ratio of four to one.

"We still do see, on average, children drawing more male than female scientists, which makes sense if you think about their environment — that women still are underrepresented in several science fields," Miller said.

Stereotypes can constrain children's beliefs of what they can and cannot do, said Toni Schmader, director of Engineering Success in STEM at the University of British Columbia, in an emailed response.

"Children draw what they see," Schmader said in the email. "These findings suggest that there is still work we need to do [to] expose children to the important role that women are playing in scientific discovery. If we can change these representations, young girls might more easily be able to envision a future for themselves in science."

Educators can help

Northwestern's Eagly said educators have to work on changing the reality that children observe, recommending they feature more work by female scientists and to make children more aware that there are more women scientists.

"Basically what has to happen to change those observations is more women in science and more women getting Nobel Prizes and becoming visible," Eagly said. "So the world has to change."