Why Science Still Needs To Change For Women

Big white beard, crazy hair, glasses? How about, socially awkward, ‘nerdy’, only interested in their work? What if they were holding some kind of bubbling purple liquid that may or may not destroy the world…?

Whether you guessed it or not there are many people who still believe these are the set of qualities possessed by scientists.

In 1957 two ladies named Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux wrote a paper about the perceptions of scientists amongst high school students. Unsurprisingly, this was the response:

“The scientist is a man who wears a white coat and works in a laboratory. He is elderly or middle aged and wears glasses…He may wear a beard, may be…unkempt.…He is surrounded by equipment…and spends his days doing experiments.”

Whilst science itself was a different place in the 50s and the way we do science has changed, the idea of what a scientist is hasn’t. Various repetitions of the ‘Draw a Scientist’ test (which is exactly what it sounds like) show that even today when you ask kids to draw what a scientist is you get the same thing. A cartoonish Einstein-like figure illustrating exactly the same stereotypes as 50 years ago. Literally a matter of weeks ago I asked a room full of 10 year olds what they thought of when I said “scientist”, and I got answers like “crazy hair”, “glasses” and “mostly men.”

These aren’t just from the minds of children either; when adults in New York were shown photos and asked to pick who the scientists were, they tended to identify them as the ones that weren’t smiling. Apparently scientists don’t smile…

These stereotypes aren’t just harmless cartoon fun however, they can be really damaging.

As much as we don’t want to admit it, children and teenagers are massively affected by the notion of ‘fitting in’, and the playground idea that only ‘nerds’ like science is stopping kids from feeling they can explore something they may be interested in. We’ve created a world where children who are interested in science feel embarrassed about it, whilst those who don’t know what they’re interested in yet won’t bother exploring it, because why would they? A career where you supposedly have to abandon all hobbies and social interactions doesn’t sound particularly appealing to anyone. Young people who don’t fit the scientist stereotype see it over and over and feel like it isn’t something for them.

It’s clear to anyone who has spent considerable amounts of life with me that I was always going to end up doing something in science. I mean, I discovered Father Christmas wasn’t real by myself as a child, purely because I was too intrigued by the physics behind how the letters floated up the chimney. Science is so clearly what I am meant to be doing, but even I questioned whether it was something I wanted to continue with because of the stereotypes that come with it.

As a slightly (read:very) embarrassing teenager I was obsessed with the Mighty Boosh. I had black skinny jeans, silver cowboy boots and I even got my hair cut like Noel Fielding (unfortunately, that’s completely true). I didn’t, however, see how science would fit with all the other things I was interested in or inspired by. I had subconsciously been fed this idea that liking science has to define your whole personality and that you couldn’t be other things if you were also a scientist, and so I started to distance myself from something I’d always really enjoyed.

The scientists we are exposed to are so limited and often perpetuate this false idea. The ones we learn about in school are predominantly old white men since they were the only people allowed to really do science, back when the science we learn in schools was being discovered. Films and TV only seem to perpetuate the stereotype further by either presenting us with comedic classic nerd types, or super intense film scientists who spend the whole film science-ing and only being there for the science.

An interview I read recently made the point that a problem in films and TV is that scientists are always ‘just doing science’; that is the reason for their character’s presence. How many films are there where the characters have jobs that aren’t really relevant to the plot? Lots. And in those cases, how many were scientists? Characters in all these films about dysfunctional families or will-they-wont-they romances can be teachers, lawyers, bankers and the like, but its rarely ever thrown in that these people’s irrelevant jobs are in science. They’re usually only scientists when being a scientist is relevant to the plot.

It’s not just the people in science that are stereotyped though, but the subject itself. It is seen as difficult, inaccessible and boring. Adults who abandoned science after their uninspiring recitals of the periodic table at school now see it and get that same instant nausea that I do when someone says “bleep test”. Websites and magazines have politics, entertainment, sport, health & beauty sections but rarely science ones. The only time we really get science in these kind of publications is when it’s awful sensationalised Daily Mail-style “everything gives you cancer” scaremongering or “wine will make you live forever” false hope.

No wonder there are children shying away from what can be an incredibly varied and fulfilling career. No wonder there are girls thinking physics and engineering isn’t meant for them. No wonder there are adults who don’t think science news is something they’d be interested in, or something that would effect their lives. No wonder there are people in the world who believe all scientists are part of some secret pact to create triffid-like GM crops and evil vaccines designed with the sole intention of killing everyone’s babies.

We’re not all boring, work obsessed nerds, we don’t all have glasses and we definitely don’t all work in labs. We can be interested in art, sport, going out on a Friday night and dancing on a ping-pong table. Science is no longer the efforts of eccentric old guys working alone in their houses; it’s about the collaborative efforts of many people with completely varied personalities. People interested in science are no different from people interested in anything else in the world, and I don’t understand why this idea still exists.

We need to keep engaging children with science, putting real science in magazines and newspapers and publicising the diversity within science fields using social media; like the recent and brilliant #ILookLikeAnEngineer.

And anyway, I’m a scientist AND a girl from Essex… so work that stereotype out.

  • Holly Palmer


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