Draw A Scientist
Quick, what does a scientist look like? Picture it in your mind — don’t overthink it. What are they wearing? What's their gender? The color of their skin? If you aren’t all that happy with what popped into your head, it’s understandable. Not to worry, this is a safe space. And you’re not alone.
In 1983, David Chambers published his work on the Draw-a-Scientist Test, in which he simply asked a number of elementary school students to “draw a picture of a scientist.” Core stereotypes emerged from this test and the many similar studies that have followed throughout the years. For example, the presence of a white lab coat, facial hair, glasses, and chemistry equipment.
Among these stereotypes are that a scientist is white and male.
We draw what we see. Many of us are anchored in the images of the “real” and popular scientists at an early age, usually reinforced by history class. They’re the Old Boy’s Group of Discoverers: Edison, Newton, Tesla, Darwin, Einstein.
These “Founding Fathers” — the ones that would be printed on Science Dollars if they existed (come to think of it, they do... they’re called grants) — command respect and adoration. They are the ones that “do” science.
Go ahead, Google “famous scientists.” With whatever algorithm Google uses for the pre-selected banner, only two women make the cut for the first 30 spots, with no people of color present at all until George Washington Carver at #31.
The Peanut Wizard deserves better than this.
From those roots, our image of a scientist is affected by a variety of factors including our socioeconomic backgrounds, education, and personal connections. And then there’s popular culture.
Growing up, we’re exposed to all varieties of media — movies, television, the Internet, books (please ignore “books” if you’re reading this 10 years into the future) — and this exposure can fundamentally shape how we perceive things.
Indeed, this influence has been found to be true in relation to students’ perceptions of scientist. For example, a more recent study found that when drawing a scientist, 4th grade students that cited entertainment media as their primary source of inspiration were more likely to depict scientists unrealistically than those inspired by science communication media and school. (In this context, an unrealistic scientist mixes-potions-makes-explosions, while a realistic scientist puts asterisks above bar graphs.)
However, this can go beyond just a perception. One longitudinal study exploring the effects of media on the self-esteem of black and white children discovered that television exposure “predicted a decrease in self-esteem for all children except white boys.”
We call that difference in self-esteem White Male Privilege.
Now, there are many factors at play here, but we can’t discount the role of representation. Importantly, even women and people of color were inclined to stereotype a typical scientist as white and male.
According to a 2013 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, women, Hispanics, and African Americans are still significantly underrepresented in STEM fields compared to their representation in the overall workforce.
It’s easier to imagine the stereotype when it truly mirrors the vast majority. For a more thorough academic analysis of this concept, watch Zootopia.
Unsurprisingly, this also holds true in the entertainment industry. Just this year, the Comprehensive Annenburg Report on Entertainment found that across 414 film and television/streaming programs reviewed from 2014-2015, only 33.5% of females had speaking roles.
Additionally, only 28.3% of non-white ethnic groups were speaking characters on these platforms, disproportional to the 37.9% of the population they make up.
While the problem is clearly not endemic to just this industry, it’s easy to see how the images it presents exist for society to emulate.
Underrepresentation in entertainment means underrepresentation in professions portrayed, which can then be internalized by the viewer. Nobody should think that a STEM job is “for white people” — outside of Nazi Physician.
Representation alone is emphasized so much here because it appears that it will be the primary issue as we move into more progressive times.
Between 1983 and 2001, negative stereotypes about scientists markedly eroded and scientists in general were depicted more positively by mass media. Other studies have found that women scientists are depicted in equivalent status to men in more recent portrayals.
Essentially, the entertainment industry is making strides to portray scientists in general in a more positive light and run against gendered stereotypes. But exactly how much does it matter if the underrepresented groups have little presence?
It’s encouraging that, say, a Latina scientist won’t be depicted as dependent and inferior to her male counterparts, but the main hurdle is having her show up at all.
It’s a bit like pouring a bucket of sprinkles on a donut hole. You’re content that your hole is candied, but there’s a whole bakery out there that could have used those extra sprinkles.
Studies suggest that portrayals of scientists in media do not buck this trend.
One study that reviewed scientists in television programs viewed by middle-school children concludes, “Consistent with other studies, the typical scientist character in these programs was an unmarried Caucasian man who did not have children, held a high-status science position, and was likely to be portrayed as being intelligent.”
Notably, intersectionality (the overlap of social identities) is also a rare occurrence: depictions of women scientists are overwhelmingly white.
When we consider that women are underrepresented from the outset, this renders women scientists of color nearly invisible.
African American men have had some better success in this regard with major roles in such films as The Invasion, The Hunger Games trilogy, Source Code, and the television series Westworld.
What do all of these works have in common?
Jeffrey Wright plays the African American scientist. The man just really loves playing a scientist. Or maybe studios are unwilling to seek out other employable Black actors for similar roles. The truth is somewhere in the donut.
Interestingly, Asian Americans, which are actually overrepresented in STEM fields, are the least likely to show up in film/television.
There are some bright spots, however, like Dr. Henry Wu from Jurassic Park/World fame, the geneticist that indirectly caused the horrific incidents of both films, and Helen Cho from Avengers: Age of Ultron, whose biggest contribution to the film occurred while under mind control. Progress!
Good luck finding Hispanic scientists in U.S. television or film, unless Dora the Explorer’s School Science Fair Episode satisfies the need for you.
Even if we pivot to educational materials, the story doesn’t change. A literature review of children’s trade books from 1991 to 2011 also turned up a similar result, finding that “the scientists depicted were mostly male and mostly White.”
The writers of that paper put it best: “if children's trade books are truly ‘a child's first introduction to science’, then perhaps that introduction should strive to present the community of science as we would like it to be, rather than strictly how it is.”
Optimism, not realism, should be at the forefront of thinking when considering the gender and/or ethnicity of a scientist in popular media. As scientists and professionals ourselves, it’s important that we foster open communication with the mass media and encourage greater representation among all groups.
While this article solely covers the media component, it’s actually more important that children are exposed to scientists from all walks of life.
Many of these same studies also conclude that children that have personal connections and experiences with real scientists, especially ones from diverse backgrounds, are less likely to hold unrealistic, stereotypical images of scientists.
If you are from an underrepresented group, volunteer in your community and show the next generation that science is not a white man’s job. In the words of Melania Trump, they need “to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
White men have nothing to lose from these efforts, but the underrepresented have everything to gain.
Whether it’s the valiant savior discovering the cure for the zombie outbreak or the background fodder of the research facility that gets eaten by zombies, it’s always important to ask the question, “Does this person have to be a white man?”
Because there’s a child on the other end of the screen of that age-inappropriate program that may be thinking, “I, too, can live a successful and productive life making grand advancements in the STEM field before my brains are clawed out,” if they only saw someone like them.