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A few weeks back, our ⅚ STEM teacher, Ms. Morgan, emailed a “mission moment” to the staff:
Yesterday in STEM, I had the scholars draw what they thought a scientist looked like. The lesson plan I was following was from SciMath. SciMath (as well as my own background and middle school days) indicated that most would draw older mad scientists, predominately male.
However... LJA of course (AMAZINGLY) the vast majority drew female and young girl scientists.
Just showing me how much things have changed since I was their age :) and the wonderful programs at LJA that tell them they CAN!
What a great story! Students imagining scientists that look like themselves is probably even more important than you realize. Let’s take a closer look.
When SciMath predicted that the students would draw “older mad scientists, predominantly male,” they were actually drawing on evidence from the "Draw A Scientist" test, going all the way back to 1957. Through numerous iterations of the test since then, the stereotype has been relatively persistent. It probably doesn’t surprise anyone that in 1957 children imagined most scientists in that way: most scientists were men and sexism in science was stronger. The description of this time period from the bestselling book Hidden Figures probably surprises no one: “Women, however, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations.” However, you would hope that after 60 years of hacking away, those expectations would be raised, and yet the stereotypical scientist is still male more for most students. What gives?
One big part of the problem is that the women chronicled in Hidden Figures didn’t have a bestselling book written about them (or a critically acclaimed film produced about them!) until 2016. The stories of women already in science have not been shared widely enough. We need to fix the overrepresentation of males as scientists in children’s books as well as in science textbooks. The imbalance between men and women in the scientific fields is a vicious cycle. It is hard for young girls to imagine themselves as scientists when they don’t see women scientists.
Even for the women who do become scientists this lack of stories can create problems. In her popular memoir Lab Girl (also from 2016), Minnesota-born Hope Jahren writes about the amazing lives of plants, her passion for science, and her enduring friendship with her lab partner Bill, but she also is honest about the impact of stereotypes against women in science, “In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.” When everyone’s heads are populated with images of men in lab coats doing science, it becomes hard for even actual women in science to correct those images.
But the existence of Lab Girl and Hidden Figures, and their popularity, is a step in the right direction. Evidence suggests that being exposed to the existence of real, actual scientists is enough for students to breakdown this stereotype about scientists. And breaking down this stereotype is the first step toward students imagining that they can be scientists. LJA was founded as a girl-focused school in part to put that focus, that spotlight, on these stories, so that we could begin undoing these persistent imbalances in STEM, so that 20 years from now, all students will believe that there are scientists out there that look like them.
So, upon second glance, it should be both less surprising and more uplifting that the students in Ms. Morgan’s class drew scientists that looked like themselves.
P.S. If after today’s blog post you are hungry for more stories of Women in Science, here is yet another recently published book that gets out more stories about female scientists: