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  • Writer's pictureHeather Saigo

What Does A Scientist Look Like?

You may have heard of the Draw-A-Scientist Test (DAST), which is used to research how people picture scientists. It is particularly interesting to see what children draw when asked to think about scientists. If you think about a scientist right now, what comes to mind? What would you doodle?

Recently, I wrote a guest post for Errant Science, about my dissertation research on women in STEM. Since Errant Science is a science-themed cartoonist, I discussed the DAST in my post, and the wonderful artist drew a special comic especially for me! Check it out!

cartoon of scientist with lab coat, glasses, messy hair, speaking to another person holding a messy wig.
If I relied on movies from my childhood to show me what scientists look like..

Scientists Are Thought of as White Men in Lab Coats

In 1983, a DAST study of US children in kindergarten through fifth grade found that only 28 girls out of 4000 students drew women when asked to picture a scientist (Steinke, et al., 2007). Perhaps kids don't interact with scientists in person, so they rely on media portrayals to teach them about what scientists look like. Generally, most scientists on TV and in movies are not women. Dr. Dana Scully on The X-Files was a notable early exception, and there is evidence that The Scully Effect contributed to an increase in women entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields ("The Scully Effect," n.d.).

Although women are still underrepresented in STEM -- especially in math-intensive fields -- there has been improvement. Women now receive more than half of college degrees in some subjects, such as the life sciences. However, in a recent meta-analysis of DAST studies around the world, researchers found that "students still view scientists as middle-aged Caucasian men who wear white lab coats and work in a laboratory" (Ferguson & Lezotte, 2020, p. 60).

Why Do Perceptions of Scientists Matter?

Children begin to develop understanding of their potential social and career roles early in childhood. Gender stereotypes are conveyed to kids through deliberate influences ("boys are better at math; girls are better at reading") and environmental cues (engineering toys marketed toward boys; homemaking toys marketed towards girls). Even though young kids show similar levels of science interest and ability, the gap between boys and girls is evident by middle school and widens over the course of educational and career pathways. Stereotypical perceptions are one of many factors that keep girls from pursuing science-related subjects, contributing to women's underrepresentation in STEM careers.

Research on How Women Persist in STEM

For the past three years, I have been working on a doctorate in education. I am finally getting into the data collection and analysis part! Oh, it's thick and chewy, and I love it. Like a cookie with peanut butter and chocolate chunks and a mystery ingredient that adds something special to the experience. I am really enjoying this research right now (opinion subject to change depending on statistics and writer's block).

In a nutshell, I hope to learn more about how women stay in STEM. There is quite a bit of research into the obstacles women face and why they leave (it's complicated), but less on how they persist. This is the area that my research addresses. I am using Self-Determination Theory (SDT) as my framework, focusing on autonomy, competence, and relatedness as critical factors in motivation and persistence. If you are interested in the background details, I have hundreds of references to share, so feel free to get in touch!

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