Kids Draw Women Scientists More Than Ever, but Stereotypes Still Catch up With Them in Grade School

Children in an art class in 1988. Steve Eason/Stringer/Getty Images

Children in the U.S. are drawing scientists as women more than ever before. In an analysis of more than 20,000 children who participated in "Draw-A-Scientist" studies over the last five decades, the overall proportion of kids in kindergarten through 12th grade drawing women has increased from less than 1 percent to 28 percent.

However, while children up to the ages of 7-8 did not draw significantly more males than females, as they progressed through elementary and middle school, the tendency to draw scientists as men increased sharply.

The research appears in the journal Child Development.

In the first "Draw-A-Scientist" study, which took place from 1966 to 1977, less than 1 percent of almost 5,000 children drew a picture resembling a woman. Nearly all kids drew a man with lab equipment. These men were often bespectacled, bearded and dressed in a lab coat.

In studies from 1985 to 2016, 28 percent of kids drew women. Over time, both boys and girls drew women more often, with girls in particular drawing female scientists.

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This is in line with increased numbers of women in science, and more depictions of female scientists on TV and in other children's media. "Our results suggest that children's stereotypes change as women's and men's roles change in society," said Alice Eagly, study co-author and professor of psychology at Northwestern University, Evanston, Il, in a statement.

"Given this change in stereotypes, girls in recent years might now develop interests in science more freely than before," added study lead author David Miller, a psychology doctoral candidate at Northwestern University, Evanston, Il.

Overall, children aged five or younger drew women as scientists about half the time. But, once kids reached seven or eight, the tendency to draw women as scientists plummeted.

Elementary and middle school kids were more likely to draw men as scientists and accessorize their figures with glasses and lab coats. Researchers suggested this could show that children learn more stereotypes as they get older.

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"These changes across children's age likely reflect that children's exposure to male scientists accumulates during development, even in recent years," said David Uttal, a co-author of the study and a professor of education and psychology at Northwestern.

"To build on cultural changes, teachers and parents should present children with multiple examples of female and male scientists across many contexts such as science courses, television shows and informal conversations," Uttal said.