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Science stereotypes

Are tired stereotypes steering kids away from science careers?

In the late 1950s, behavioural scientists Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux published a seminal study showing that American high school students held a pervasive image of a scientist as “a man who wears a white coat … unshaven and unkempt … wears glasses … surrounded by equipment: test tubes, bunsen burners, flasks and bottles … his work may be dangerous”.

The “mad scientist” archetype has long been conspicuous in pop culture. It’s the Einstein-esque genius with wild hair and even wilder experiments. It’s Victor Frankenstein, or Doc from Back to the Future.

Decades on, this character trope might seem stale. But new research led by ACU’s Laura Scholes, Associate Professor at the Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education, suggests the stereotype continues to stick. 

In a study titled “I’m good at science but I don’t want to be a scientist”, Scholes and her co-author Dr Garth Stahl asked primary school students from six Australian schools a series of questions to gauge their views on science. 

Their findings indicate that for many students, the image of a scientist has not changed much since the ‘50s. 

“These are nine and 10-year-olds, and when we asked them, ‘What does a scientist look like?’ the idea of the ‘mad scientist’ seemed to be ingrained, even at this early age,” says Scholes, whose research explores gender stereotypes and schooling.    

“Surprisingly, they still have this idea that a scientist is someone with a white lab coat and crazy hair and goggles.”

Science stereotypes limiting career choices for children

Take Jack*, a participant in the study who aspires to be a soccer player. He describes a scientist as “a crazy white-haired sprouting out mad man”. Others talk of “a person in a white coat, wearing protective goggles”, or mention “potions and they’re tipping everything into each other”. 

These stereotypes can cloud a young person’s perceptions of science, leading them to rule it out as a potential career regardless of talent or interest. 

More than half of the students surveyed expressed no aspirations to pursue a career in the sciences, and a further 13 per cent were vague or ambivalent. 

Scholes and Stahl note their findings “resonate with previous studies that have emerged since the 1950s indicating that for many students, the image of a scientist remains grounded in a particular stereotype of a lab worker”. 

They suggest that movies, books, TV shows and social media may have something to answer for, unwittingly influencing the future career choices of schoolchildren. 

“Think of movies like Back to the Future, where we see a scientist doing risky things, where things are exploding and people are in danger,” Scholes says. 

“These depictions make science seem weird and dangerous, and many children don’t see it as something that could be an everyday experience. It puts science outside their realm of possibilities and creates a distance that can affect their aspirations.” 

The fact that the “mad scientist” is a character in the imaginary world of movies and books seems to make little difference, with only one student making a distinction between fiction and reality.  

“A scientist in a fictional world has a big white lab coat,” says Sam*, a boy who aspires to be an Olympian. “But now that I’ve grown older, I know that scientists usually don’t wear, although they sometimes do wear white coats, but not usually because it’s white and it would get easy stains. Now I think of scientists as just normal clothes.”

Working with a microscope

Sam is obviously right: Not all scientists wear white coats. And many real-life scientists are working to smash the stereotype. 

Take this article, provocatively titled “Meet 12 badass scientists… who also happen to be women”, featuring a cosmologist, a coral biologist, an astronomer and a computer scientist, among others. Or the #UniqueScientists, who use social media to highlight the diversity of scientific careers, showing kids that they can be scientists, too. 

‘Girls and boys can do science’

There was at least one encouraging finding in Scholes and Stahl’s study. 

Most students didn’t see gender as a defining factor in science, with only two describing their image of a scientist as “only a man”. 

“It makes no difference,” said Tilly*, a girl who aspires to be a teacher or an artist. “Because there’s girls that are scientists and boys that are scientists.” 

This suggests a level of inclusivity amongst the Year 4 students interviewed –an indication, perhaps, that programs promoting gender equity in Australian primary schools may be gaining ground. 

But despite this “gender blindness”, Scholes and Stahl argue that a tension remains “for students who, on the one hand, use non-gendered accounts of scientists, but on the other hand, develop their science identities in relation to perceptions of traditionally masculine traits”. 

“It seems like students have taken on the politically-correct language that is probably being promoted in the classroom and perhaps at home, that both boys and girls can do anything, including science and maths,” Scholes says.   

“But when you dig deeper into their justifications for not wanting to be scientists, you hear more about the deep ingrained masculine traits that have traditionally been associated with science – the difficulty, the physical danger, things blowing up and getting messy. 

“So while we’re telling them ‘you can be anything’ and encouraging kids and especially girls to go into science, the reality is, they’re receiving a much stronger message from elsewhere that science isn’t for them, so it doesn’t feel real.”

As you would expect, this tension tends to affect girls more than boys. Research shows that boys are more likely to aspire to a career in the sciences, and they consistently participate in all science courses, except biology, at higher rates than girls.  

Scholes points out that girls aged nine and 10 are still forming ideas of themselves in relation to gender. 

“We still have very strong masculine and feminine expectations in schools, and we still promote these expectations though school uniforms and by doing things like boy/girl seating plans or lining up strategies,” she says. “We’ve got gender segregation in lots of things like sports and even schools themselves, so these traditional stereotypical gender roles are quite ingrained.”

Kids enjoying science

The result is that girls still tend to have more of an affinity with caring professions, like teaching and nursing, while boys are attracted to powerful roles, like professional sports and policing

Scholes and Stahl cite an earlier study involving some 9,000 British primary schoolchildren (aged 10 and 11), which found career aspirations in the sciences were largely “unthinkable”. Science was seen as “not nurturing … not girly, not sexy, not glamorous”, in contrast to the girls’ self-identifications as “girly” and “caring”. 

“So you can see how the language and these ideas of science as dangerous and dirty can easily put girls off, because there are really narrow boundaries around being a girl and being a boy in school and how you should behave,” Scholes says.  

“These things constrain kids in terms of needing to fit in and conforming to the stereotypes or the identities that are available to them in primary school.”  

Smashing the stereotypes

So, how can we begin to reverse the damage done by decades of typecasting? How do we get more children – and particularly girls – interested in science careers? 

Much of the research around student career aspirations has focused on secondary school students, and the policy agenda in Australia has followed suit, with programs aimed at widening participation in science focusing on children in their teens. 

Scholes suggests that for many students, this might be too late. She points to research suggesting that primary school years “are a crucial time when stereotypes about science become increasingly pervasive”. 

Scientists in action

“We are gradually coming to the understanding that these belief systems in very young children tend to hold fast, so if they hold a stereotype in Year 4, that is likely going to impact on them later on,” Scholes says. “Other studies have shown that the aspirations kids have at this age align with what they end up aspiring to when they’re 15 and beyond.”  

The key to preventing the formation of these restrictive stereotypes is to get in early, she adds.  

“I think what the research is telling us is that we need to directly challenge stereotypes, and to do more in primary schools to break down the fundamental beliefs that kids have about science at an early age.” 

That might mean introducing interactions with a broad range of real-life scientists in the classroom, or engaging students in hands-on science in the real world.  

“It might be things like helping to solve some environmental problem in their local area, being involved with people in the community who work in scientific fields, or engaging in projects through local councils and special interest groups,” Scholes says. 

“We need to give young children a window into the broader world of science, so they see can it as real-world work done by a diverse range of people they can identify with: men and women engaged in important things that have an impact on their lives, and that connect them to their world.”

Laura Scholes is an Associate Professor researching gender and literacy at ACU’s Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education in Brisbane. She is also a Principal Fellow of the Australian Research Council, researching how to challenge masculinities associated with boys’ failure in reading. 

Associate Professor Laura Scholes

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*Denotes that the students’ name has been changed. 

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2021 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G