Researchers at Northwestern University have determined that today there are more kids drawing women as scientists than there has ever been before. While that seems like a random thing to research, the University’s “Draw a Scientist” test has actually been administered since the 1960s, as a way to see how kids see the field of STEM. Kids across the last 50 years have been given a very simple prompt – “draw a scientist” – and the results have shown a noticeable progression when it comes to gender. Though kids today are still way more likely to draw a traditionally male figure as a scientist, the number of women drawn in the study has increased exponentially.
The study found that, in the 1960s and 70s, less than one percent of children would think to draw a woman as a scientist. From the 1980s until now, that number rose to around 28 percent. Professor Alice Eagly, a co-author of the Northwestern study, told the BBC that kids draw male scientists starting at the age when they become “more connected to their world,” and thus realize that science is a male-dominated field. Earlier on, the split will still lean heavily towards male scientists, but there will be a higher percentage of female scientists drawn.
According to the research, gender also plays a part: girls draw 42 percent of scientists as women, while boys draw a staggering 96 percent of scientists as male.
The study’s findings compare favorably to research that tracks the changes that occur in children’s drawings as they get older. By the time kids hit the 4-7 age range, they’re in the pre-schematic phase, which means their drawings will start to reflect the things they see with their eyes, rather than being driven by pure imagination. Kids who are 7 or older, on the other hand, are in what is considered the schematic phase, which means their drawings give more context. For example, an 8-year-old’s drawing of a wolf might be set in a forest and around other woodland creatures, rather than be set on the moon next to aliens.
While the Northwestern study thoroughly tracks the test across decades, there’s one fact that has experts doubtful of the result. Kids are notoriously receptive to outside influences, so much so that some experts have taken some issue with the “Draw a Scientist” test. According to Bianca Reinisch of the Free University of Berlin, “there are differences in the setting of the assessments and even variations of the “draw a scientist” prompt.”
For example, if there’s a poster in the room that displays a female scientist, that could be affecting the child’s gender choice for their drawing. Moreover, Reinisch notes that, up until now, the test only offered two gender choices. As the understanding of gender and how it’s taught evolves, it becomes more clear that narrowing the choice to two genders for kids could have been confusing the results.