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).

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.