Stereotypes change, others confound

Years of efforts to change the stereotype of scientists may be having an effect, say Australian researchers. However, while some stereotypes have changed, others remain firmly entrenched.

For the past 50 years repeated studies have found that school students hold stereotypical images of scientists as men, with the image being reinforced by depictions in textbooks and media. However, Australian Catholic University’s Laura Scholes and the University of South Australia’s Garth Stahl have found that this stereotype might be changing.

The two researchers interviewed 45 primary school students across Queensland to find their impressions of science and scientists, finding that only 2 of the 45 immediately associated scientists as usually being men. Several students even specifically said that people of any gender could become scientists.

The group of year 4 students, while small, came from economically and geographically diverse schools. They were also asked about their interest in science as a possible career, with around a third of the students would strongly consider science as a career path.

The study has been published in the International Journal of Inclusive Education.

Flipping some stereotypes, while others remain

“The fact that most kids said science could be a career for a woman or a man, shows just how far we’ve come in terms of gender, and the waning of gender stereotypes may reflect the impact of a range of initiatives across Australia to normalise women in STEM,” says Stahl.

While the study only included a small number of students, the results are encouraging to those working to remove stereotypes and show science is for everybody. Also encouraging is that one-third of the students did see science as a possible career option.

However, the study also found that over half of the students had no aspirations to be a scientist. And when the researchers delved into why, they found other stereotypes remain firmly entrenched.

White lab coats and dangerous experiments all epitomise the ‘mad scientist’ from many a Hollywood blockbuster, and the stereotype lives on in the students minds. One student described scientists as “a crazy white-haired sprouting out mad man”, while others described “bottles with all sorts of weird stuff in it”.

A large number of students also associated scientists with lab-based experiments.

“Primary school is a time when kids are influenced by all sorts of stereotypes – through books, TV and movies. In the case of science, media often shows scientists to be eccentric men in white coats,” says Stahl.

“The problem with stereotypes is that they tend to stick, so what we’re seeing with primary school students is that their perceptions of science and scientists are influencing their ideas of future careers.”

“There’s still room to do more, especially as students talked about stereotypical images of scientists wearing white coats and protective goggles and doing lab-based experiments.”

Too dangerous or high pressure

The students who didn’t have an interest in pursuing science tended to think it was ‘dangerous’ and ‘challenging’.

With media often portraying scientists as eccentric or rogues, there was a theme of risks of explosions or harm which students mentioned as a disincentive. (Science outreach demonstrations also often feature explosions). One student said his lack of interest in pursuing science came because “you could blow the place up or something”, while others said “if something goes wrong some things that can blow up and a lot of people could die there” and “it’s dangerous.” Several students also cited the pressure placed on scientists as a turn off.

One concern is that these stereotypes may mean they don’t engage with science education in later years at all, despite the benefits of studying a diverse range of subjects. Also interesting were some students who aspired to be involved in engineering or technology but didn’t recognise the parallels and elements of science important to those roles.

The authors write that the need to broaden students’ visions of science and scientists is ultimately important to help them realise a wider breadth of future possibilities inside and outside science.

“The notion of science being ‘weird’, ‘unusual’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘challenging’, is a barrier that we still need to tackle, with many kids feeling that a career in science could be too difficult or high-pressure for them to achieve,” says Stahl.

“It’s two steps forward, one step back – gender stereotypes may be in decline, but we still have a long way to go if we are to get children to understand the role of a modern scientist.”

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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