Why stereotyping scientists matters

By Siouxsie Wiles 27/04/2013 10

I’m always interested to find out what people think I do for a living. No one has ever said scientist. It’s usually something in the arts or fashion*. You know, creative industries. I’m guessing it’s because of my hair. What is interesting about this though is that somehow people don’t think of science as being creative. Such misperceptions are largely due to the way scientists are portrayed in the media. It’s really interesting looking at stock photos to see how different professions are portrayed; some of the best of scientists have been collected together by various bloggers. Male scientists are usually older with crazy hair, while women scientists are scantily clad or have completely forgotten to wear any clothes. White coats abound, as do glass vials of coloured liquids. But how representative are these images of scientists? Not very, I’d say. But should we care? Yes!

This 'scientist' remembered her gloves and safety glasses but forgot her clothes!
This ‘scientist’ remembered her gloves and safety glasses but forgot her clothes!

A few days ago I gave a talk to primary school teachers about why stereotyping scientists matters. It was partly inspired by data looking at pictures of scientists drawn by school children before and after a visit to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Chicago, which specialises in high-energy particle physics. Lots of the before images are of crazy haired old men in white coats, with many children describing careers in science as unobtainable. But after the visit, the scientists start to look just like normal people, and the children even start to suggest they could see themselves as scientists one day.

After my talk, the lovely Dr Sally Birdsall sent me a paper published in 1999 that looked at children’s portrayals of scientists [1]. The authors collected 562 drawings done by 281 children aged 5-13 living in different socioeconomic areas of London. I’ve plotted some of the data showing the percentage of drawings that represented male and female scientists, as well as those where scientists are portrayed wearing a lab coat or doing chemistry-type experiments. As you can see, more males are portrayed than females, a trend which increases as the children get older, at least until the age of 10. What is really interesting is that the numbers of drawings of scientists in white coats/doing chemistry increases with age, presumably as children are exposed to media portrayals of stereotypes.

How kids portray scientists
How kids portray scientists

It seems clear to me that being exposed to more realistic portrayals of scientists makes a difference, at least to children. Meeting real scientists is even better. If you are a scientist reading this, consider getting in touch with your local school and volunteering to go in and meet some of the kids. The younger the better! In the absence of having any scientists volunteer, in my talk I pointed to some online resources that teachers could use to show scientists in all their real glory. There is the fantastic ‘This Is What a Scientist Looks Like‘ which has pictures and profiles for over 600 scientists of all colours, shapes and sizes. There is also the ‘100 Women, 100 Visions‘ project, a series of 100 pictures taken by photographer Jackie King in 2009 to celebrate the variety of women scientists and engineers at Imperial College London**. And finally, there was the Great NZ Science Project, the public engagement campaign for the National Science Challenges***, which used 8 scientists to illustrate the diversity of science going on in New Zealand. What I love about this campaign is that it showed that science happens everywhere, not just in labs. And only three of the 8 scientists are wearing lab coats****. The TV advert below got a lot of airplay on NZ TV so I hope that will go someway to busting some of the stereotypes.

Slides from my talk:

1. Changing children’s images of scientists: can teachers make a difference? Brian Matthews and Daniel Davies (1999). School Science Review. 80 (293): 79-85.

*Fashion always cracks me up. I got the award for being the worst dressed two years running in high school. True, the award was coveted by the ‘alternative’ crowd – it meant your efforts to be different had been recognised πŸ™‚

**See if you can spot a familiar face.

***Which are being announced on Wed 1st May…

****Make no mistake though, the campaign wasn’t perfect. One of it’s main features seemed to have been to perpetuate the myth that all scientists are bad communicators. One stereotype at a time I guess.

10 Responses to “Why stereotyping scientists matters”

  • Siouxsie,
    Interesting that your perception is that female scientists are portrayed as scantily clad- this is something that I hadn’t noticed, I thought most female scientists were portrayed as dowdy and bespectacled. Perhaps for different motives women in science are portrayed mainly at either end of the spectrum.
    The projects which provide students with pictures of scientists in all their different shapes, sizes, colours and extracurricular activities are awesome, though I sometimes wonder the more geeky looking scientists might then feel overlooked πŸ™‚

    • True, I was thinking mainly of the stock photos I’ve been looking at but you are right, in the movies they are mainly dowdy and bespectacled. Sad really. Well that dowdy bit anyway, as plenty of us wear glasses πŸ™‚

  • The scantily clad part was a surprise to me, but the movies that come to my mind typically have attractive young female scientists (I don’t know that that is statistically significant though …). I think that is sad in a different way.

  • In our institute, any time marketing have to get pictures of scientists they choose young, pretty male or female staff. They dress them in crisp clean white lab coats and usually photograph them waving a pippetteman over a gel on a pristine bench.
    The assumption seems to be presenting real scientists doing real work (typing on a computer surrounded by random toys usually) would have less impact.
    Oh and the woman pictured, is clearly just checking her cultures before heading off to a rave in a strapless dress (in my head :))..

  • There is another form of stereotyping in science that particularly affects women. Women who choose to wear fashinable clothes or makeup are frequently considered to be “not serious scientists”.

  • Scientists are, of course, different and special but I think the sexism issue is general. Stock photos of office dwellers, meeting holders and pointers at powerpoint presentations follow pretty much the same trends. Generally the old guys in suits are shown with neater hair that the ones in white coats but otherwise it’s the same story. Of much more concern is the absence of creativity in people’s perceptions of scientists. That’s a worry; at the core of science is creativity.

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