Education and Skills

Kids aren’t biased at age 6. And then this happens

Colour pencils are pictured as children draw at a nursery school in Eichenau near Munich June 18, 2012. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is looking to establish a childcare allowance for stay-at-home mothers. The draft law, known as Betreuungsgeld, will provide mothers who stay at home with their children, about 150 Euros ($190) per month. Picture taken 18, 2012.   REUTERS/Michaela Rehle (GERMANY - Tags: EDUCATION POLITICS)

When children are asked to draw a scientist, the gender they choose can explain a lot about gender stereotyping. Image: REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

Alex Gray
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Education and Skills?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Education is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Education

You may never have heard of them, but Draw-a-Scientist experiments have been going on since the 1960s. The test is as simple as it sounds – it asks children to draw a scientist – but the results speak volumes about gender stereotyping.

Where it all began

Back in 1983, the social scientist David Chambers published a study which looked at the drawings of nearly 5,000 children from the US and Canada over 11 years, from 1966 to 1977. Chambers found that, while the scientists looked very different, they were almost all male.

Only 28 of the children, who were aged between four and eight, drew a female scientist, and all were girls. That’s less than 1%.

Since then, women have entered scientific fields in ever greater numbers. This made Northwestern University PhD student David Miller wonder whether children’s perceptions of scientists had changed.

This drawing is part of a study that looked at 5,000 children’s sketches of scientists from 1966 to 77. Image: Draw a Scientist Test (Chambers, 1983)/Wikipedia

Still a man’s world?

His new study examined five decades’ worth of this test, analysing drawings by 20,000 children between 1985 and 2016. The good news: as time went by, more children drew female scientists.

In 1985, 22% of children drew a female scientist on average.

In 2016, 34% of children did.

On average, 28% of children drew a female scientist, much higher than the original 1%.

However, the news isn’t all positive: younger children were more likely to draw female scientists. The tendency to stereotype increased with age.

Children aged five and six drew roughly 50/50 male and female scientists. But by the age of eight, they were much more likely to draw a male scientist.

Girls draw girls

Image: Miller et al

More girls than boys drew female scientists: on average, they drew 70% of scientists as female at age six.

However, by the time they were 10 or 11, this trend began to reverse. By the age of 16, girls on average drew only 25% of scientists as female.

Boys were always more likely to draw a male scientist – 83% at age six, rising to 98% at age 16.

Miller reasons that: “Teachers and parents should therefore be aware that elementary school and middle school is a critical period when students start forming stereotypes about scientists. Children should be exposed to diverse examples of scientists that go beyond the typical white, male scientists usually presented in classrooms.”

Wiping out gender stereotypes

Beyond the field of science, stereotypes - and the biases they foster - continue to influence the way men and women approach work. A survey carried out by the World Economic Forum found that "unconscious bias among managers" was rated as the biggest obstacle to gender parity across a range of industries.

If we are to successfully navigate the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the world needs fewer barriers, and more women working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Have you read?

Currently, women make up less than 25% of the STEM workforce in the United States. But the good news is that, clearly, children respond to what they see around them.

And if they see female as well as male scientists, hopefully many more girls will enter the profession.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Education and SkillsJobs and the Future of WorkEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How to harness generative AI and other emerging technologies to close the opportunity gap

Jeff Maggioncalda

June 21, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum