Feminine Science Role Models… and other bad ideas?

What does a scientist look like? In an ideal world, if we asked a random group of children to draw a scientist, we would see a huge variety of responses. We would see some male, some female, some dressed in lab coats, and others ‘in the field’.

This post was written in response to news of research indicating that feminine female role models may put girls off science. It was was originally published on the ScienceGrrl blog in February 2013.

What does a scientist look like? In an ideal world, if we asked a random group of children to draw a scientist, we would see a huge variety of responses. We would see some male, some female, some dressed in lab coats, and others ‘in the field’.

Scientists, like any other group, are not all the same.

And as a community we ought be showing this diversity. To encourage children to embrace the idea that they can follow scientific careers, we need to be showing that people like them already do science. Evidence shows that perceived similarity is an important factor in creating effective role models, and therefore we need to be providing role models that aren’t just old, white, men.

Yet there is a wealth of evidence showing that children of all ages, even those from minority backgrounds, have the over-whelming perception of a scientist as a white bespectacled man, working alone in a lab.

With scientists – male and female – visiting schools, and taking part in engagement schemes like the brilliant ‘I am a Scientist, Get me out of here!’, we can hope to start counteracting this image, and show that scientists are human beings; that they have their own sets of interests, personalities, have taken different career paths, and indeed can be emulated.

Therefore, when a news release for a paper entitled ‘My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls’ popped into my Twitter feed a few weeks ago, I was rather alarmed.

What are the implications of this, if feminine role models really do demotivate girls from embracing science? By encouraging a wide range of people, including ‘feminine’ women to talk to children, are we actively doing harm? Social science research can be invaluable at informing our understanding of human interactions, so I took the scientific approach, read the paper, and looked at the results.

I’m not going to repeat what is a comprehensive take down of the paper.  However the tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) version is that neither myself nor a number of others are convinced by the conclusions of the study.

The paper focused upon a very extreme stereotype of what a ‘feminine female scientist’ would look like; someone who wears pink, likes fashion magazines and wears make up. I wouldn’t like to define what a ‘feminine female scientist’ would look or act like, nor guess at how such a person would be portrayed in a written interview (as was the method used to introduce the role models to participants of this study).

Whilst I am sure there are some female scientists who do wear pink clothes, like fashion magazines, and wear make up (indeed, my former physics teacher was one), it is statistically unlikely that there would be that many. Instead we would expect a bell-curve of ‘femininity’ (however that was defined), and indeed a female scientist certainly need not conform to this image in order to self-define as ‘feminine’.

Just by looking around us, and thinking about who we know, we can see that scientists come in all shapes, sizes and skin colours. Some are male, some female, and some would prefer not to define as either. Some are feminine, and others are not.

Similarly, school aged girls are not a single group. Some of these will be more confident than others, some will have more positive ideas and experiences of science, and yes, undoubtedly some of these will be more feminine than others.

If we want to provide girls, and indeed other groups under-represented in science, with role models, we need to ensure that these multiple types of ‘scientist’ are made visible. The more we do this, the more we breakdown the preconceptions of who and what a ‘scientist’ is, and the more we increase the probability that any one child can find someone they can relate to, and hope to emulate.

Perhaps there will be studies in the future which better show the effects of role model types on perceptions of science. Perhaps we will get better insight into the age at which stereotypical images of scientists begin to form, how these preconceptions are reinforced, and how to better break them.

In the meantime, I think we can do a lot worse than displaying the diversity of scientists in our midst.

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