Scientists Have an Image Problem

I saw this article quoted on Tumblr back in the fall, but it had slipped my mind until the recent Girl Scout Advocacy Day. I was speaking to STEM director for Girl Scouts of Connecticut, and she told me a story about an event where they had female scientists come talk to the girls. The scientists came in jeans and sweaters for a Saturday event, and as the girls were just hanging out with the speakers before they got started, the girls asked, “But when are the scientists coming?”

The NewScientist article talks about the public perception of scientists, as measured by the “draw a scientist” test and a general look at scientists in movies and media. They link to Margaret Mead’s 1957 Science article, “Image of the Scientist Among High School Students.”

With great perception, Mead out that a negative perception of science not only means that students are less likely to pursue science careers themselves, but that they also feel negatively toward a future spouse having those careers, and that this seriously impacts the environment in which future scientists are going to school and the environment their educators are presenting science in. Of course, Mead only asks the girls how they’d feel about marrying a scientist, she never asks the boys – and that says a lot about the world then (and now?).

It doesn’t necessarily seem like a huge deal, but loneliness is hard. Kids today face so much pressure from bullying, and even into my 20’s, “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” seemed to ring so true. Scientists are people, with feelings and passions and lives, and it’s important to clear the way for future scientists by showcasing who scientists really are – normal people with a passion for this particular way of thinking and this particular kind of work.

Other gems from Mead’s article:

“He works for long hours at the laboratory, sometimes day and night, going without food and sleep. He is prepared to work for years without getting results and face the possibility of failure without discouragement; he will try again. He wants to know the answer.”

I think that anyone who has survived graduate school in the sciences is at least in some percentage this person. Perhaps, however, in our rush to affirm the above positive image of ourselves, scientists lead other people to draw a similar conclusion to this ‘negative’ image in the paper: “He has no social life, no other intellectual interest, no hobbies or relaxations. He bores his wife…He is never home. He is always reading a book. He is always running off to his laboratory.”

One of my favorite recent efforts along these lines is This is What a Scientist Looks Like.  It certainly gives me reason to pause and ask what I’m really telling folks when I dash back off to lab.

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