Drawing a Scientist – Representation can Disrupt Stereotypes

About three years ago, just as my older daughter discovered riddles I came across a new one for me in a news article. This riddle was more striking than any others I had seen in the past and I thought I would run it by her. She solved the riddle immediately without hesitation! Me, it took a minute.

We were on I way to school, with both children listening I shared the riddle:

“A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate – that boy is my son!”

Who is the surgeon?

My initial thought, the child has two dads. My older daughter’s (who was 7) initial thoughts were, “the mom!”

“Wow, that was easy. Ya, you’re right.”

“That was easy dad,” she responded.

“Dad that was easy” Echoed my younger daughter. Both kids smiled and then asked interrupting one another as they tried to tell one of the three riddles they knew by memory.

The Dad Is Gay?

My immediate thought after reading the riddle was that the surgeon was the boys other father. Why was I quick to assume that the parents were gay rather than a woman could be a surgeon?

A research study published in 1983 by David Wade Chambers provides clues. In his research, he asked over 4,000 children between kindergarten through fifth grade to draw a picture of a scientist. His results at the time showed that almost all of the boys drew a man. About half of the girls drew a man, the others drew a woman. But this was among children in second and third grade. The gender differences in kindergarten were more balanced.

My initial take-away, was that children are less likely to make gender stereotypes as it pertains to professions early in life. That is why my daughter’s recognized that the mother could be the surgeon before I could.

Time passes

Fast-forward three years. That was last week. We were on our way to school and my oldest daughter and I began talking about stereotypes, something that is talked about periodically. My youngest daughter then asked, “Daddy, what’s aa stereotype?”

My older daughter explained as thoughts began to enter my head. Perhaps all of the conversations we had in the past made no sense to my younger daughter. She was only agreeing with her sister. After my older daughter explained the meaning of a stereotype my other daughter said, “Oh yaaaaah.”

I then repeated the riddle that I told them years ago and had since gone unmentioned.

 “A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate – that boy is my son!”

Who is the surgeon?

My older daughter paused to think and later admitted that she thought the dads were gay. My younger daughter said, “It was the boy’s mom.”

Why?

Surprise! Children are influenced by what they see on TV shows, movies, books, and examples in their everyday world. Children use these experiences to construct their understanding of important concepts to their everyday functioning. The better and quicker they can construct consistent categories the more they can focus on more specific traits of objects, people, food, etc. This is all part of the human experience. As children age, they continue to gather more information that confirms or contradicts their constructions. Researchers have postulated that as children age they have more exposure to social information that confirms stereotypes, particularly through the behavior and interactions with peers and adults in their school. All that work that parents put into helping their children understand that gender is not a barrier to dreams have lost their influence.

But that doesn’t necessarily explain everything about gender and why girls are more likely to draw a picture of a scientist as a woman. That is better explained by developmental research on gender constancy. Researchers have found that children do not understand the idea that they and other people continue to be male and female to be female…which we can recognize as is the case more often than not. Around three years old children understand gender constancy, as well as many other forms of constancy, but they still don’t clearly understand abstract concepts that do not relate to them. Since they are much more likely to have a pediatrician who is a woman, they assume that every doctor regardless of their role is a woman. As a child enters first grade they increasingly begin to understand more about who they are as a person in a broader context of others as well as think abstractly about people who they have never met or interacted with. They see more specific categories and they recognize the larger patterns; in this case in TV shows, movies, books, and examples from peers the important scientists are men.

So what do we do with Generation Alphas?

I can’t tell you exactly what to do, but I can tell you what I did. I asked my children, “Is it true that surgeons are men?” We go from there, questioning stereotypes and thinking about the inaccuracy of our thinking and assumptions. We talk about how that is our “normal” and our “normal” helps us focus on things our brain interprets as more important for our survival, but it can also be unhelpful. Stereotypes prevent us from seeing the value that others and limit opportunities for those who don’t fit the stereotype. A recent study looking at 5 decades of similar research has found that more than ever, second through fifth graders are drawing scientists as women. So keep doing what you’re doing and recognize that thinking about gender and gender roles changes as children age. They attribute it to the continual growth of gender representation in the medical field. But the same cannot be said about race. The scientists are never given color to their skin.

Stereotypes are developmentally appropriate. Stereotypes help us focus on what is important. Stereotypes need to be recognized and challenged because, in the end, stereotypes of people create barriers and dead ends to making our society stronger, healthier, and more innovative. Promote increased gender and racial representation with children. Exposing children to professionals who contradict gender and racial stereotypes. But most importantly, talk to children about the inaccuracies of stereotypes and the barriers they create so they can be co-conspirators in increasing representation in their everyday lives.