Why it’s important to ask: ‘What does a scientist look like?’

16 Jun 2022

Marine biologist Debbi Pedreschi addressing the crowd at Spanish Arch during the first Soapbox Science event in Galway, 2017. Image: Soapbox Science

UCD’s Dr Dara Stanley gets on her science soapbox to pick apart decades of scientific stereotypes to tell us what’s wrong with this picture.

If you were asked to draw a scientist, what would you depict?

Scientists, and who they are and what they look like, is something that has captured the public imagination since the dawn of science. In the 18th and 19th centuries the perceptions of scientists were varied, from naturalists among plants and animals, to controversial characters involved with black magic. More recently, our view of scientists and who they are has narrowed.

A 1957 study asked US high-school children to write essays about scientists. Among the 35,000 submissions were quotes such as:

“A scientist should not marry. No one wants to marry him.”

“He neglects his family … has no social life … bores his wife.”

“The scientist is a man who wears a white coat … is elderly … bald … wears a beard.”

Science was clearly not a desirable career choice socially, and this study showed distinct stereotypes around who a scientist is were already formed.

Another study from Canada and elsewhere during the 1970s and ’80s delved further into this. Over 11 years, 4,807 primary school children aged five to 11 were asked to draw a scientist. From as young as six years of age, only 0.06pc of children drew scientists as female, and most of these drawings were by girls. The gender stereotyping of men as scientists was being consolidated as a key issue.

The methods developed by the Canadian study have become commonplace, and the ‘draw a scientist’ test, or DAST, is still used today. The results remain similar, with scientists typically depicted as older men in white coats in a chemistry-style setting.

Things have improved a little over time. In a meta-analysis of 78 DAST studies from 1985 to 2016, the proportion of scientists represented as men has dropped from 99.4pc to 72pc. However, this analysis also found that older children were more likely to depict males as scientists, showing children tend to associate men with science as they grow older.

Where do these stereotypes come from?

These stereotypes likely come from how visible scientists are, but also how they are portrayed in the media and in popular culture.

When you see a scientist giving an interview, what gender are they? Think of your favourite TV shows that have scientists in them – what do those scientists look like?

A simple Google search of the term ‘scientist cartoon’ comes up with an overwhelmingly male selection. And that’s not to mention the lack of racial diversity, or variety of age profiles.

There is also evidence to support a link between science stereotypes and the proportion of women already in the science workforce. A study across 66 nations showed a relationship between women’s representation in science and national gender-science stereotypes, indicating that stereotypes are worse in countries where women are less well represented in science. This suggests that the more women in science, the more perceptions change around who a scientist can be.

Why should we care?

Globally, we still have issues around gender equality in the science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) sector. How this manifests is diverse.

For example, in Ireland, while we have gender equality in subjects such as biology at school level, only 13pc of university-level engineering graduates are female. This picture becomes more stark at higher career stages, with only 19pc of full professors in Irish universities being women, and 17pc of company CEOs.

This leaky pipeline, as well as the gender pay gap, indicate we still have a long way to go in achieving gender equality in STEMM.

Irrespective of the evidence that diverse scientific groups are more productive and innovative, we also need to recruit more people into the STEMM sector more generally. This will only be achievable if we can draw from the whole population, including women and other traditionally underrepresented groups.

Breaking down the traditional stereotypes around what scientists look like and who they are may be an important part of addressing the gender gap in STEMM. Stereotypes can lead to both conscious and unconscious bias in hiring or promotions within the STEMM sector. They can also influence the choices made for a course of study or career path.

What can we do about it?

It seems clear that having more women represented in STEMM, but also visible within STEMM, is important. We need more women scientists on the radio, TV and other media such as cartoons, movies and books. It is encouraging to see many broadcasters acknowledging this and seeking out a diversity of voices, and many children’s books increasingly representing a diversity of scientists.

Public engagement events also have a role to play in challenging scientific stereotypes. For example, Soapbox Science is an initiative set up to try and increase the visibility of female and gender non-binary scientists. Founded in the UK in 2011 by Serian Sumner and Natalie Petorelli, each event brings 12 female scientists from a wide range of disciplines and career stages to the streets to speak with the public about the science they do.

As well as trying to breakdown the stereotypes around who a scientist is and what they look like, these events also take science out of the usual spaces where it has to be actively sought out, to the streets where anyone passing by has the chance to engage.

To date, more than 141 Soapbox Science events have taken place globally, involving thousands of scientists. Not only does this help increase the visibility of the scientists involved through the events themselves and associated media, but it also provides them with science communication training which may lead to further visibility in the future. In Ireland,

Soapbox Science has been running in Galway since 2017, and this year will mark the fifth event in Dublin.

Although stereotypes around scientists are shifting from the older man in a white coat, the rate of change is slow. Changing these stereotypes may be a key part of dealing with issues around gender equality in STEMM.

Addressing gender equality in STEMM is becoming mainstream issue, and it is encouraging to see the range of governments, organisations, institutions and individuals putting it on the agenda. Ultimately, the benefits to the STEMM sector and society more generally will be worth it.

By Dr Dara Stanley

Dr Dara Stanley is an assistant professor in applied entomology in the School of Agriculture and Food Science at University College Dublin, and has been on the local organising team of Soapbox Science events in Ireland since 2017.

Soapbox Science Dublin will take place on Saturday, 18 June from 11am to 2pm on South King Street.

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