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Altering Perceptions of Scientists among Fifth Graders by the Introduction of Female Role Models: A New Opportunity for Dermatologists?

Open ArchivePublished:October 17, 2018DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jid.2018.09.017
      To the Editor
      A message from the 2017 Society for Investigative Dermatology’s “Irvin H. Blank Forum: Building Team Science: Creating a Culture of Diversity and Inclusion,” was that reality and perception may not always match. While scientists come from all gender and racial backgrounds, a child’s perception of a scientist may not reflect this. Previous studies have shown that this mismatch is especially prominent with girls, as they predominately have a mental perception of scientists as men (
      • Finson K.D.
      Drawing a scientist: what we do and do not know after fifty years of drawings.
      ). This misperception is particularly concerning because it may subconsciously influence future career choices and performance in school. Without young girls taking interest in science, there will be a perpetuation of future pipeline issues for women in science and medicine, affecting retention and advancement. The root cause may stem from traditional stereotype exposure from the media and absence of personal interactions with scientists. While children are less likely to be exposed to traditional scientists outside of the classroom, dermatologists may have an opportunity to influence this area because many children visit dermatologists and many dermatologists are women (

      Peckham C. Medscape Dermatologist Lifestyle Report 2017: Race and Ethnicity, Bias and Burnout. https://www.medscape.com/features/slideshow/lifestyle/2017/dermatology#page=7; 2007 (accessed 1 October 2017).

      ). By representing an alternate image of the traditional scientist, it may be possible to influence a future generation.
      Caroline Simard, at the Society for Investigative Dermatology’s 2017 annual meeting, presented an interesting method to assess children’s perspective of scientists. Because children are still in the process of developing their communication skills, they may find it difficult to convey their thoughts through verbal communication alone. The Draw-A-Scientist Test (DAST) and the Draw-A-Scientist Test Checklist (DAST-C) evaluate children’s perspectives of scientists by asking them to “draw a picture of a scientist doing science” (
      • Chambers D.W.
      Stereotypic images of the scientist: the Draw-A-Scientist test.
      ,
      • Finson K.D.
      • Beaver J.B.
      • Cramond B.L.
      Development and field test of a checklist for the Draw-A-Scientist Test.
      ). Seven attributes of a standard stereotypical scientist are each assigned a point if present in the picture: lab coat, eyeglasses, facial hair, symbols of research, symbols of knowledge, products of technology, and relevant captions. The DAST-C later improves inter-rater reliability and objectivity by introducing a standard checklist, as well as adding eight new variables: male gender, Caucasian, indications of dangers, presence of light bulbs, mythic stereotypes, indications of secrecy, scientists working indoors, and elderly scientists. The greater the total score, the greater the drawing represented a stereotypical scientist.
      Early in the 2016–2017 school year, one of the authors, a female scientist, hosted a day-long interactive botany session for the fifth graders at a local school. She was assisted by a male student and a female botanist. The students learned about herbarium specimens and complemented their learning by collecting plants from the school garden and pressing them for drying. They also participated in activities, such as using a dichotomous key to differentiate between different types of plants. We hypothesized that exposure to the female scientist may have influenced the fifth graders’ impression of scientists. Rather than interview the students, we told their science teacher about the DAST. She was intrigued with the idea and gave a class assignment patterned after DAST at the end of the 2016–2017 school year.
      To explore our hypothesis, we performed a retrospective analysis of the drawings. Because of the de-identified nature, the Emory Institutional Review Board deemed this analysis as non-human subjects research. The students self-identified as boy or girl, but did not write any other identifying information. Two raters analyzed the drawings using the DAST-C, and an inter-rater reliability score was calculated using Pearson’s correlation coefficient. We compared scores using Generalized Estimating Equation models and proportions of female scientist pictures using Fisher’s exact tests.
      Of the 70 fifth graders who submitted a drawing, 38 self-identified as boys, 31 as girls, and 1 as transgender. The mean (standard deviation) DAST-C score for boys was 6.36 (2.13) and 4.81(1.85) for girls (P < 0.001). Of the 38 boys, 1 (2.6%) drew a woman scientist, while 24 of the 31 (77.4%) girls drew a woman scientist (P < 0.0001). The raters correlated highly in their scores using the DAST-C (0.91, P < 0.001).
      Our findings are encouraging, especially compared to previous studies, such as one where 50% of girls drew a female scientist (
      • Steinke J.
      • Lapinski M.
      • Crocker N.
      • Zietsman-Thomas A.
      • Williams Y.
      • Higdon S.
      • et al.
      Assessing media influences on middle school-aged children’s perceptions of women in science and engineering using the Draw-A-Scientist Test (DAST).
      ) or another where only 17% of 960 girls drew a woman scientist (
      • Fort D.C.
      • Varney H.L.
      How students see scientists: mostly male, mostly white, and mostly benevolent.
      ). The original DAST study (
      • Chambers D.W.
      Stereotypic images of the scientist: the Draw-A-Scientist test.
      ) had a sample size of 4,807, consisting of 49% females, yet only 28 (1.2%) women scientists were depicted.
      • Dickson J.M.
      • Saylor C.F.
      • Finch Jr., A.J.
      Personality factors, family structure, and sex of drawn figure on the Draw-A-Person Test.
      found that the vast majority will draw a person with a sex that matches their own, and concluded that the lack of a role model may play a significant factor in establishing the stereotypical perception of scientists. The majority of seventh graders in the
      • Steinke J.
      • Lapinski M.
      • Crocker N.
      • Zietsman-Thomas A.
      • Williams Y.
      • Higdon S.
      • et al.
      Assessing media influences on middle school-aged children’s perceptions of women in science and engineering using the Draw-A-Scientist Test (DAST).
      study admitted that television shows and movies are the source of inspiration for their drawing of scientists. While a media literacy training intervention was ineffective in seventh-grade boys, the introduction of a role model was shown to significantly decrease stereotypical gender perceptions. This effect seems to be amplified for elementary girls when the role model is a woman (
      • Flick L.
      Scientist in residence program improving children’s image of science and scientists.
      ). Studies have also demonstrated that a female role model can have an academic influence by causing a boost in math performance (
      • Marx D.M.
      • Roman J.S.
      Female role models: protecting women’s math test performance.
      ). Thus, the importance of a role model cannot be underestimated.
      In our single-arm retrospective pilot study, it is difficult to say if the intervention caused these results or if it is due to other factors. Other studies have tested a female scientist role model but introduced the scientist just prior to their assessment or utilized in-depth interventions (
      • Bodzin A.
      • Gehringer M.
      Breaking science stereotypes.
      ,
      • Bohrmann M.L.
      • Akerson V.L.
      A teacher’s reflections on her actions to improve her female students’ self-efficacy toward science.
      ,
      • Mason C.L.
      • Kahle J.B.
      • Gardner A.L.
      Draw-A-Scientist Test: future implications.
      ,
      • Smith W.S.
      • Erb T.O.
      Effect of women science career role models on early adolescents’ attitudes toward scientists and women in science.
      ) Our intervention was 1 day and the assessment was 5 months afterwards, which is a more pragmatic approach for a larger-scale study. A future study is needed using prospective cohort design with a control arm. If the data are encouraging, there is a possibility that encouraging both community and academic women dermatologists, in addition to other women scientists and physicians, to engage in local schools with school science activities may be helpful to encourage girls to enter into science.

      Conflict of Interest

      The authors state no conflict of interest.

      Acknowledgments

      We thank Joye Hopkins for her excitement for science and asking her students to draw scientists. Research reported in this publication was supported in part by the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University and National Institutes of Health / National Cancer Institute under award number P30CA138292 .

      Disclaimer

      The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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