The Sexist

What’s the Gender of Your Default Scientist?

Before and After.

Geek Feminism Blog points to a really interesting exercise that has "seventh-graders  draw and describe their image of scientists before and after a visit to Fermilab." Several of the students modified the gender of their illustrated scientists after a visit to the lab. Others, uh, didn't. Here's the blog's breakdown of the gender results: "Among girls (14 in total), 36% portrayed a female scientist in the 'before' drawing, and 57% portrayed a female scientist in the 'after' drawing. Among boys (17 in total), 100% portrayed a male scientist in the 'before' drawing, and 100% portrayed a male scientist in the 'after' drawing." More cute drawings of scientists at the link.

  • Toysoldier

    The results do not necessarily indicate some anti-woman bias coming from the boys. The boys' comments clearly indicate that they were impacted by their experience. Perhaps their response, like some of the girls, was simply gender-specific, i.e. they may have represented themselves or a scientist they identified with in their 'after' drawing. I think it is unfair and unwise to jump to any conclusions just because the boys did not draw women.

  • Amanda Hess

    What conclusions?

  • kza

    Only 100% drew male scientists that hardly means anything.

  • PD

    I didn't get the impression Amanda (or anyone else) was saying boys think all scientists must be men. If we can get away altogether from the stereotype that scientists are nerdy, obsessive-compulsive, and male, then awesome. The point is that exposing girls and young women to actual scientists helps them realize that scientists don't always conform to the stereotype, and it's not a field they won't fit into just because they're girls.

  • Elise

    I think the fact that the boys drew 100% male scientists (an incredible number, when you think about it) has more to say about the strictness of masculinity as it is defined in our society than our perceptions of scientists as male. We already know they're perceived as male. The incredible thing is that, after an experience that made the girls in the class feel more comfortable imagining scientists as female and therefore drawing scientists as female, the boys in the class still did not feel safe drawing a female scientist, probably because to be male in our society is defined, at least partially, as not being female. So drawing a female scientist would indicate they could imagine, and possibly empathize with women - indicating a feeling of solidarity with women, and therefore a loss of masculinity. This, to me, is very disturbing and is certainly not helping in the fight for equality - we need to reconstruct masculinity to mean more than just "not a girl."

  • drsnacks

    I can see plenty of moms feeling uncomfortable about their son being the one who drew a female scientist as the after photo.

  • Toysoldier

    What conclusions?

    Conclusions like the one from Geek Feminism: "It looks like a visit to Fermilab has no impact on boys’ gender stereotypes about scientists, but it has a strong impact on challenging girls’ gender stereotypes about scientists. . . . If boys grow up to be men, and empirical evidence has no effect on males’ gender stereotypes about scientists, how do we challenge males’ association of science with maleness?"

    And conclusions like Elise posted above. We have no idea what motivated the boys to draw men (or if all the drawings were of men), so we should not jump to conclusions about why the boys, or girls, drew what they drew.

  • Keith B

    Elise kind of has a point, Toysoldier--I think if they took the kids to ANY work environment (even one with more women, say), 100% of the boys would have drawn men.

    Geek Feminism's conclusion smacks of taking what they want out of the results I think.

  • Amanda Hess

    @Toysoldier That's weird, I don't see your comment posted on Geek Feminism Blog. But thanks for commenting preemptively in order to warn anyone other than you from having an opinion on the content of the post.

  • kza

    I agree with toysoldier. How do you know that all these boys were gay and think scientists are hot? YOU DONT KNOW

  • Elise

    All the drawings by boys were of men, for starters. I looked, because I wanted to see the descriptions. Luckily, few of the descriptions after the visit to Fermilab were distinctly of males - that is heartening.

    However, I think it is reasonable to conjecture or hypothesize that the boys drew males because of the way masculinity is defined in our society - I did not say, conclusively, that that is the reason. Even with hard experimental evidence pointing to that, I wouldn't dare say that outside a paper (with said evidence having been analyzed by other researchers and thorough use of statistics). Instead, I'm giving a hypothesis - my own best, well-reasoned guess as to a possible cause behind the phenomenon of the boys drawing only male scientists. It's what scientists do, especially when they are designing or recommending a study.

  • Toysoldier

    @ Keith B: Yes, boys will likely draw male scientists, but that does not mean they feel "unsafe" drawing female scientists or that doing so constitutes "a loss of masculinity."

    @ Hess: The post was removed. Setting your red herring aside, do you disagree that it is unwise and unfair to draw conclusions about why the boys drew what they drew based on the limited information we have about them?

  • Amanda Hess

    @Toysoldier I think the possibilities presented here are no less valid than yours: "Perhaps their response, like some of the girls, was simply gender-specific, i.e. they may have represented themselves or a scientist they identified with in their ‘after’ drawing."

  • Toysoldier

    @Hess: Not to be obtuse, but that is not what I asked. Allow me ask it differently: do you think it is wise or fair for me to assert that the boys represented themselves or scientists they identified with based on the limited information we have about the boys? In other words, on what basis offered by the boys would I have to draw that conclusion?

    @Elise: Of the seventeen boys who participated, nine of them did not refer to gender at all or used "they" or "his/her" in their initial description. Of the eight that did refer to males, half created their own scientists while the others used "he" as a person marker. The girls did the same thing. Excluding the created scientists descriptions, the majority of all the kids' initial descriptions were gender neutral.

  • Amanda Hess

    @Toysoldier Sorry, your questions are really boring. This exercise and thinking about what it might indicate is interesting, though!

  • Elise

    "He" is not a gender neutral pronoun - it is the pronoun referring to someone who is male or presents as male. If the boys meant to refer to someone of either gender, they would have used the phrase "his/her" like some of the boys did, or simply used "they," "them," or some of the other genderless pronouns. Further, why did you address the initial drawings and descriptions by the boys, when I specifically addressed what was drawn AFTER the visit to Fermilab - only TWO children used male pronouns after their visit (I believe 15 specified a male gender in their initial descriptions), something quite heartening to me. It indicates that there has been a change in view by the children, at least linguistically, though the pictures drawn, of course, make the situation more complex than just analyzing the words used does.

    Wow. I'm happy to see that there is some progress from these visits - and to see that linguistics analysis can aid in yielding more complex results from what appears to be a bleak and simple situation.

  • Jesus son


    You're right, not all scientists are nerdy and obsessive compulsive. Only the best ones are.

  • LKJ


    Boys process reality slower than girls.

  • Meow Kitten

    Boys don't process reality at all. Then they grow up to be men who don't process reality.

    The conclusion is that girls are way smarter than boys. As usual.

  • Toysoldier

    Elise wrote: “He” is not a gender neutral pronoun – it is the pronoun referring to someone who is male or presents as male.

    Neither is "she," yet I do not see you complaining about the girls who used it in their initial and follow-up descriptions.

    Further, why did you address the initial drawings and descriptions by the boys, when I specifically addressed what was drawn AFTER the visit to Fermilab

    I addressed the initial descriptions because the majority of the boys wrote gender neutral descriptions BEFORE their visit to Fermilab. Did you not read my above response? Nine boys used gender neutral language. Of the eight that did not, four used "he" as a person marker. The other four specifically created their own scientists and used the appropriate gender marker for the scientists they drew. In other words, only four boys out of seventeen used "he" to refer to scientists in general. So there was not the change in view that you suggest.

    @Hess: Thanks for the excellent example of intellectual dishonesty!

  • Elise

    Ah, willful ignorance - the one thing I cannot stand, period.

    Anyway, I wonder if anyone else has thoughts on the apparent discrepancy between the pictures drawn of the scientists and the descriptions given by both genders.

    I find the change from 15 male-specific (and two female-specific) descriptions to only two male-specific descriptions heartening, while the lack of changes in what the boys drew is interesting when conflated with the change in the descriptions; I would assume (as I suspect many would) that the children would be split about 50/50 on what gender they drew, especially after learning that scientists do NOT necessarily follow the stereotype of being old, white, male, bearded, and wearing glasses. The fact that the drawings made by the girls changed so dramatically (from 36% to 57%) complicates the picture, too. I think these could be linked, or it could be something male-specific, or something with the enforcement of a gender dichotomy in our society - but I'm sure there are other explanations. One thing is certain, though - I want to learn more about this study, and others like it.

  • Saurs

    Kudos to Elise for all the thoughtful commentary. I also find the descriptions more compelling than the pictures and I would very much like to know how the seventh-graders were prepped for the drawing exercise, prior to the visit to Fermilab. Are they taking a physics course? Are they all in the same class? Do they attend a private school? What did their instructors tell them about science, as a profession? Were they asked to discuss stereotypes about professional scientists? Through which guide (of the different guides and tours offered at Fermilab) were they conducted? Are the staff at Fermilab encouraged to speak about their personal lives? If not, where did many of the girls get the impression that it's "okay" and "normal" for scientists to have "families" (i.e. husbands and children)?

    There's a strong narrative in almost all of the post-Fermilab descriptions about scientists being "normal" and "regular" and "male" and "female." Clearly, the Fermilab schools tour is designed to demystify the profession of science, make it less intimidating, and make scientists seem less quirky. (But whether they actually discussed the work at hand in the lab and particle acceleration is another matter, altogether.) This is fairly evident in the pictures and descriptions. Almost all of the "after" pictures feature figures dressed in casual garb. Most are lacking eye-glasses. Frowns of concentration have been replaced with welcoming smiles. Some of the "before" pictures featured people of color, while most of the "after" pictures depict white people. Many of the "after" descriptions discuss probable hobbies of scientists outside of work -- manly things like sports, lady things like pottery. Most of the excerpted descriptions emphasize that ANYONE can be a scientist, women aren't barred, "all shapes and sizes" et cetera, et cetera. It's very kumbayah, to me. I wonder whether each student was paired, briefly, with a member of staff, as well. Some of the pictures drawn after Fermilab look a bit more like they the children were trying to draw a real person's face, someone they had met.

    I also wonder to what extent the lab's history with sexual harassment claims have shaped the curriculum for schools tours.

    This story has now done the rounds in a coupl'a different interweb communities, particularly fem websites and women-in-science websites. I have to say, given the absence of context, I'm not sure how seriously we can discuss "explaining" the boys' behavior. I know why I think they kept on conceiving of scientists as men, and I could have predicted that they would, but I'm not sure it can explained definitively. However, the notion bandied about that boys are frightened of drawing women because they're "intimidated" by women or can't relate to women is hilarious, really. Young boys who identify as straight love to draw women -- so long as they're naked and pornified. A lot of young women are apt to draw pornified women, for that matter, even when they're not trying to. In fact, of the men and women drawn, the women were kind of boring and attractive, and the men, for the most part, remained bald and old (but had character and some interesting distinguishing features) in both sets of pictures.

  • Keith B.

    I would assume (as I suspect many would) that the children would be split about 50/50 on what gender they drew,

    Young boys who identify as straight love to draw women — so long as they’re naked

    Pretty awesome all the women here who are experts on 7th grade boy behavior. And Elise, 3, three girls changed the gender of their scientists. Call it a "dramatic" 21% change if you like, it's still 3 kids out of a group of 14.

    I agree, Saurs, that one little trip to Fermilab, and a bunch of kid drawings is hardly fodder for (gasp) scientific conclusions. My guess why 100% of the before and after boy drawings were men? Unless they were asked to draw a person working in a "feminine" job (nurse, librarian, housekeeping), you'd get all men because no 7th grade boy is going to draw girls, that's sissy shit. This prob ties in to the whole feminine-as-an-insult thing (pussy, throw like a girl and such) which is pretty damn important to boys at an age when they're just going through puberty and having to think about what it means to "man up". There's nothing masculine to a 12 year old boy about drawing nice scientist ladies.

  • Woman

    "Pretty awesome all the women here who are experts on 7th grade boy behavior."

    Well, we do give birth to boys. That might be why we are experts on male behavior. We know men before they know themselves.

  • Toysoldier

    @Elise: Unless we have a different method of counting, if one added up the number of times the students referred to males without specifically creating (and naming) a male scientist it comes out to 9 not 15. That the boys drew males does not indicate that the boys followed the stereotype. This is part of the problem with applying a preconceived notion to these children's descriptions. We lack of any knowledge about the children's experiences, the scientists they met, and what may have made the biggest impression on them. Without that information you are essentially projecting your own opinions onto the children.

    @Keith B: Boys do draw women. I can attest to that someone who drew a lot as a child and constantly had other boys asking me to draw women for them and as someone who lives with kids in junior high. Drawing women will not prompt anyone to question a boy's masculinity unless it appears he is designing clothes.

  • Keith B

    @Woman: Get a job as a sitcom writer. You go girl, etc. Shucks!

    @Toysoldier: Did you only draw naked women? But seriously, look at the ages and look at the kids' drawings in the OP. Were other boys really asking you for your quality crayon drawings of clothed ladies?

  • Elise

    @Keith B: I don't know that the children would, in a vacuum, draw 50% male and 50% female - that's why I noted it was an assumption, a very important label. I would need to do outside, extensive research, to conclude whether that was valid or not. So, if you have more time than I do, feel free to do so. Just make sure you get IRB approval before you start research on people.

    It's also worthwhile to note that I doubt anyone here is a statistician, who could analyze the study and tell us which results were statistically significant or not, so really, we're all just discussing this. It would be great if it were polite and constructive, and remember that no one is seriously trying to speak as an expert (if I were, I'd be getting paid).

  • Woman

    @ Keith B

    Good to see you have a sense of humor. You go boy!