I came across this article that started as follows:
Ask a child to draw a scientist, and research says they will often draw the typical stereotype of a “mad scientist” – an older, usually white, man, with wild hair, wearing a lab coat and goggles. This mental image perpetuates myths about who can and can’t work in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers. The reality is that anyone can be a scientist or support the work of scientific institutions, regardless of age, gender, race, personality, or even perceived predisposition.
The article goes on to make the case as to why the stereotype is flawed and. that anyone can do science. That people from any demographic can do science is undoubtedly true. The article also suggests that the stereotype that only older white men are scientists may discourage people from other categories from going into science. That is also plausible. The problem I have is with the idea that because children, when asked to draw a scientist, draw an older white man, is an indicator that they actually believe that only such people can do science..
I do not think that inference is valid. This is because the children have been specifically asked to draw a scientist and they have to figure out how to do that unambiguously. This forces them to draw a stereotype, even if they do not believe the stereotype, precisely because an older white man is a stereotype of a scientist. If they drew a young person and/or a woman and/or a person of color, what would make that represent a scientist, unless they added a label on them saying the figure was a scientist? The only reason to deviate from the stereotype is if you are specifically trying to make the point that anyone can be a scientist. But can we expect a young child to indulge in such a sophisticated sociological calculation and make a political point through a drawing?
If I were playing a game like Pictionary and had to draw a scientist, I would face the same problem as the children of how to depict one. I might well end up drawing someone similar to the way the children did, an Einstein-like figure, because that is instantaneously recognizable. Even the white coat and goggles are stereotypical, though not as harmful. I have been a scientist all my life and have never worn such a coat or goggles. I doubt that even Einstein, the person universally recognized as a scientist, wore a white coat and goggles even at the patent office where he worked, although he did do some experiments while there. But I may have added those accessories to my Einstein figure, just to drive home the idea that it was a scientist.
Perhaps a better measure of whether children have stereotypes of who can be a scientist is to show them an array of images of diverse people and ask them which of them could be scientists. If they tend to only pick older white men, then that would be a better indicator of the negative influence of the stereotype.