1 Comment »Posted on Friday 22 August 2008 at 4:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong

David Bradley over at Sciencebase has written an interesting article on scientific stereotypes and the perception that science is only done by weird men in lab coats.

He mentions a survey performed by a team from Leicester University and Curtin University of Technology in Australia, where preliminary results have found that most children aged six to eight perceive scientists to be white, male, and endowed with crazy hair. Worryingly, many children say they don’t want to become a scientist when they grow up because scientists (supposedly!) never have any fun.

Lead researcher Tina Jarvis found that when asked to draw a scientist, boys never drew women and girls would only do so occasionally. Black and Asian children would also fall in line with stereotype and draw white scientists, rather than someone from their own ethnic background. Is it any wonder that science struggles to attract girls and members of ethnic minorities to the profession?

Perhaps not. I was listening to a discussion on PM on Radio 4 the other day, about how the elderly are discriminated against by “elderly people crossing” signs which depict them as frail and infirm. The guy from the road signs organisation (name escapes me, unfortunately) argued that whilst it would be possible to change to a more political correct sign, you would actually lose the usefulness of the sign.

Everyone knows what a frail old man with a walking stick represents, and I think it could be the same with the scientists. The children were asked to draw a scientist and sketched the stereotype so that they would be clearly understood. Marilyn Fleer, associate professor of education at the University of Canberra in Australia, agrees with me:

“Although there are still stereotypical responses given when children are asked to draw a scientist, if you interview them they will qualify their work by saying they had to draw it that way, so that you know what it is.”

The solution is to show children that the stereotype isn’t true, and all sorts of people end up as scientists. By encouraging them and demonstrating the fun in science, we’ll have a whole new generation of scientists – and I’m sure only some of them will have crazy hair.

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