This post is reproduced from the blog Dundee Physics with the kind permission of the author.
Recently, my daughter was asked to do a writing and comprehension exercise related to her science class. On the surface, it was a simple assignment: Look at an image and write descriptive words and phrases about it, and then put these into context in a few sentences. The exercise was linked to her current project work on magnets and their properties. (It was rather straightforward, as she is only in Primary 3.) But the picture that the teacher had chosen was what caught my eye. It was of a “scientist” in the old man, Einstein mold with a set of test tubes.
Although I don’t have a problem with the assignment itself, I do take issue with the way that this particular image reinforces the tired old cliché of the stereotypical scientist. This is the type of thing that seeps into kids’ minds and influences the way that they conceptualize the sciences. While it may not put them off entirely, it could lead them to perceive science as being uncool or only for a limited group of people. At a young age, I think many kids love science. They like doing experiments and discovering things. But after years of being bombarded with images like these, that can begin to change. I think my daughters are capable of anything, including becoming much better scientists than I am. However, in spite of their potential, years of reinforcement of the idea of scientists as disheveled old men could ultimately take its toll.
This is a deeply entrenched image in society, and it is not a simple problem to fix. The misconception should be addressed on multiple levels, and so science communication needs to extend much further than just the pupils. The solution begins with teachers. The instructors at a primary school may not know better. They too have grown up with these stereotypes, and they may be, through no fault of their own, unaware that this is an issue. That is why we in the science community need to raise awareness among educators so that our teachers can help take on the lack of female students in the sciences.
I have watched with interest the development of projects like Sciencegrrl and Geek Girl Scotland. For quite a while, I have sympathized with their cause and seen the need for such initiatives. However, before I had my own daughters, it didn’t hit quite so close to home. Now the issue seems much more personal. I have ordered a Sciencegrrl calendar to pass on to my local school. In addition, as the Head of Physics at Dundee University, I will try to look at ways to improve our attractiveness to female applicants. As a community, we need to explore ways in which we might help out more in the community to try and counter such stereotypes. As a start, I have ordered a Science Grrl calendar to donate to my kids’ school. You should get one too.
David McGloin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is head of the division of physics and a senior lecturer at the University of Dundee, Scotland.
Academic careers, Career, Communication skills, Women in Science