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Scientists Overwhelmingly Portrayed As White Men

Stereotyping of gender roles is encouraged by the industry through the images it uses.
Stereotyping of gender roles is encouraged by the industry through the images it uses.
  • Women and racial minorities are underrepresented in science imagery
  • When they are included, it’s usually as an observer
  • This imagery can reinforce gender stereotypes, particularly in STEM professions

Before actress Jodie Whittaker was cast as the lead role of The Doctor in Doctor Who, it was often questioned whether a female actor would ever play the much-loved character. Men had, unquestionably, always held the role previously. For some reason, in a fictional world of time-travelling police boxes and shapeshifting aliens, a woman being cast was beyond comprehension for many. The public response to her appointment was not entirely positive

Although we’re talking about a sci-fi character, the reaction is indicative of how our society has, for a very long time, gendered certain job roles. Especially in science. But this way of thinking may not be entirely our fault…

According to research from Nazarbayev University, this stereotyping of gender roles in science is perpetuated and encouraged by the industry itself through the images they use.

Dr. Anna CohenMiller, Dr. Sejin Koo, Dr. Neil Collins and Dr. Jenifer Lewis, analysed the extent to which women were represented in images used in 10 countries’ pavilions at the Astana Expo: a festival bringing together countries from around the world to showcase their contributions to scientific advancement. They found varying levels of bias towards men in all 10 countries, with no country showing gender-equal representation.

Germany, Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg displayed no women in science in their images, while the only woman Spain included was shown in a kitchen. The woman in this image was described as enjoying ‘greater autonomy’ due to the innovation of ‘improved stoves.’

Austria, France, Hungary, and Slovakia did include some images of women, however, they still relied heavily on images of men. For example, of Austria’s 15 individual images, only one was a female scientist.

Although the Netherlands were the closest to having gender-balanced imagery – of five images, two were women – no country actually provided a gender-balanced view. They all used a majority, or solely, male images.

When scientific images did include women, they were often audience members rather than scientists and usually shown smiling. In contrast, men were the main focus and had serious expressions.

Portrayal in imagery reinforces and teaches students and children ideas on who can take on various roles, including doctors, teachers, or scientists. Gender-balanced or gender-biased imagery can either raise awareness to reduce a gender gap or reinforce gendered stereotypes – by excluding women as scientists, the imagery teaches visitors that scientific knowledge is primarily owned by men, explain the researchers.

When racial minorities were assessed, the scientific images were also found to portray primarily white individuals as scientists; those from racial minorities were more likely to be portrayed as audience members, if at all. For example, the Netherlands’ pavilion included an image of a white male scientist providing a demonstration to a group of mostly young black girls. Overall, the images strongly emphasise the presence of white men in science.

Dr CohenMiller explains that gender stereotyping of scientists can be demonstrated by the Draw-A-Scientist test. This test asks children to draw a picture of what a scientist looks like. There have been improvements over time, with more children drawing women as scientists since the test was created in 1983. However, boys still primarily draw men as scientists, almost half of girls still draw men as scientists, and, as girls get older and receive more feedback about their abilities, they begin to draw women as scientists less frequently.

Dr CohenMiller also offers a thoughtful comparison of how impactful imagery can be, “consider a family raising a boy and a girl. If their home shows photos of only the boy, what does it suggest they think about the girl? At best, they’ve simply forgotten to include photos of their daughter. So, if at an international event, images of women are left out, the nation itself is suggesting that there is more importance and value to one gender over another.”

Large-scale events like the Astana Expo provide opportunities for scientific communities to alter or reinforce perceptions of gender in science. If countries continue to show a reliance on using images of men and white people when presenting at major scientific events, they could be unconsciously exacerbating the problem of gender and racial inequality.

This research demonstrates that more needs to be done to showcase greater representation of women and racial minorities in science. Jodie Whittaker’s time in the TARDIS could not have come sooner.

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