PhD Candidate in the Department of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
David Miller, a PhD candidate in psychology, was surprised when he learned many years ago about the original Draw-A-Scientist-Test (DAST) study. Researchers had asked nearly 5,000 children in the 1960s and 1970s to draw a scientist.
“Of those 5,000 drawings, only 28 of them depicted a female scientist, all of which were drawn by girls,” said David. “That was less than 1% of the total sample.”
“But, a lot has changed since the 1960s,” David also noted. “Women’s representation in science has substantially risen, and female scientists are now also more often depicted in children’s media. These changes made me wonder how children’s stereotypes have also changed.”
David started researching children’s drawings of scientists as part of a course project during his first year at Northwestern. In the following summer, he was a research mentor for the Summer Research Opportunity Program. His SROP mentee, Kyle Nolla, worked with him to systematically find Draw-A-Scientist studies. She eventually became a graduate student at Northwestern in the same department as David (psychology) a few years later.
“The DAST meta-analysis project really shaped my thinking as a researcher,” said Kyle. “From the get-go, it had me thinking about reproducibility and effects over time, about how meta-analyses are a key tool to synthesizing scientific findings and moving science forward.”
David, Kyle, and two faculty advisors, David Uttal and Alice Eagly, analyzed 78 U.S. studies that included over 20,000 children and spanned 5 decades.
"We found that US children now depict female scientists more often than ever before,” David explained. “In the studies conducted in the 1980s and onwards, 28% of children drew a female scientist. We think that these results suggest that children’s stereotypes linking scientists with men have weakened over time, consistent with women’s increasing participation in science and female scientists being represented more often in children's media.”
Despite change over time, children still drew more men than women by a ratio of 2:1 in recent studies. “That makes sense because women remain a minority in several science fields,” said David.
Their research studied how children acquire such stereotypes. Children entering kindergarten depicted roughly equal numbers of male and female scientists. This finding could reflect preschool-aged children having a limited understanding of scientists.
“Asking a 3-year-old to draw a scientist might be akin to asking them to draw a blorb,” laughed David. “They just don’t know much about scientists at that age.”
However, the tendency to draw male scientists strongly increased with age, becoming apparent during late elementary school and further strengthening during early middle school and onward.
“Children don't start out drawing all-male scientists; we teach them that over the course of their lives, through our professed beliefs, the media, and representation in the real world,” explained Kyle.
Their paper was published March 20, 2018. This achievement was especially notable for David, who underwent cancer treatment during the peer review process. He has been granted a clean bill of health and is grateful for the flexibility provided by his advisors.
“It was very helpful for me to have this project while I was in treatment,” shared David. “It gave me a sense of purpose and normalcy during a chaotic time.”
After graduation this June, David will start a position as an educational researcher in American Institutes for Research’s Chicago office. To extend this research, he hopes meta-analyze children’s gender stereotypes about mathematics and reading abilities.