opinion
4 mins read 18 Jan 2020

How Young People See Women Scientists

Young people still don’t see us women as scientists – a little activity from my recent school outreach visit.

Drawing of a woman scientists wearing a white lab coat

Student drawing of mad scientists (male) with beakers and explosions

Recently, I was able to visit a primary school as part of my science outreach activities – something that I really love doing. While planning my visit with the teachers beforehand, we decided to try a little activity that would survey what young people thought a scientist was, with respect to women in STEM. 

A couple of years ago, I was interviewed for an article in the Canadian magazine, Fashion, about women in STEM and I mentioned certain stereotypes.

Screenshot of article, showing a young woman sitting on floor looking into constructed pieces of robotic materials.
The article that featured Dr. Karen Lee-Waddell in Fashion (2017). Credit: Lisa Hannam.

A few weeks ago, I visited a school to talk about my job as an astrophysicist to 80+ students in grades 3 and 4. Before my visit, the teachers asked the students to “draw a scientist”. Some teachers mentioned my surname and research field but were careful not to disclose any gender information.

The results were interesting. Many students drew the typical image of scientists portrayed through media norms like film and television – the lab coats and test tubes/beakers. Some even drew their version of the “mad scientist”.

student drawing of male astronomer standing on steps near telescope

Student drawing of male scientist in lab with beaker

The notable part was that 30% of the drawings featured a female scientist! This result is great but there is still a long way to go, especially amongst the impressionable young minds of students, with respect to gender balance and women in STEM roles.

For example, one student had asked their teacher if they were “allowed to draw a female scientist” and when I walked into their school, another exclaimed, “She doesn’t look like a scientist!”

This is absolutely one of the reasons why I visit schools and enjoy doing science outreach to young people. I want to show them what a scientist can look like, and more importantly, I want to promote STEM education and show them that dreaming big can really open up a universe full of discovery.

We have made significant progress towards achieving gender equality, but there is still more we can do to overturn typical stereotypes and encourage everyone to pursue an interest in STEM. I believe a grassroots approach of “showing and telling” can win over many hearts and minds.

And we have it in our power and responsibility, to change the future.

Side note. Oddish is my favourite.

Student drawing of round blue character with no arms, 2 legs and leaves growing from its head with a speech bubble featuring a short letter and the words STEM with representative symbols.

Community Activity

We’d like to encourage parents, guardians and teachers to participate in a similar simple activity. Without giving away any context (e.g. movies, names, genders, examples) ask young people to draw what they believe a scientist looks like.

Then upload the drawings into Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #DrawAScientist, let us know their age and tag @SpaceAusDotCom - remembering not to include any images of the young person or their name. Your names and social handles will not be captured or included. 

We’d love to know how a larger population sample thinks about this question and across different age bands as a basic activity and will share the results through social media.

Portrait image of Karen Lee-Waddell

About Dr. Karen Lee-Waddell

Dr. Karen Lee-Waddell is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow with CSIRO in Astronomy and Space Science as well as the Project Scientist for the WALLABY, the all-sky neutral hydrogen survey that is being conducted on CSIRO’s new telescope, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP). 

Karen completed all of her education in Ontario, Canada -- including a Ph.D. at Queen’s University, MSc at the Royal Military College of Canada, BA(Hons) at McMaster University, and a BSc(Hons) also at McMaster. Four years ago, she moved to Sydney, Australia to pursue a dream of exploring the Universe with the capabilities made possible by CSIRO and the Australia Telescope National Facility. Karen’s research focuses on galaxy interactions and physical processes governing these systems, in order to better understand how the Universe is evolving and hopefully solve some of the greatest mysteries of the still unknown.