Let's move past the white lab coat depictions of scientists

Dr Mary McMillan. Picture: Jon Clay

Dr Mary McMillan. Picture: Jon Clay

I've been told on numerous occasions that I don't look like a scientist. I think this usually means that I don't look old enough, I'm not male enough and my hair is too blue (or too pink, or too purple...)

It's a bit ridiculous. Scientists are, after all, just regular people.

So really, anyone and everyone "looks like a scientist". But yet, the stereotypical image of what a scientist is persists.

Social scientists have been investigating this phenomenon for many years.

The "Draw a Scientist" test (which asks school children to draw their own depictions of a scientist) has been used since the 1960s to help understand how children perceive scientists. There are some interesting, and somewhat depressing results.

In original studies from the 1960s and 1970s, less than 1 per cent of children drew their scientists as women. That's improved somewhat since the 1980s, with kids drawing women scientists about 28 per cent of the time. Still, not near the 50 per cent that we might hope for. And across all these studies around 80 per cent of kids drew their scientists as being white.

Drawings created by kids generally place scientists in labs, wearing white coats and goggles. But scientific careers are much more diverse than that. Although I am one of the white-coat wearing lab scientists, many of my scientific colleagues spend their time out in the environment, or working with complex machinery, or using high-end technology and computers, with not a lab coat or beaker in sight.

There are a bunch of fantastic scientists on social media who are working to highlight the diversity of scientists and scientific careers, and show kids that, no matter what they look like or where they come from, they can be scientists too (if you're on Twitter or Instagram check out #UniqueScientists).

However, while this change is happening online, the mainstream depictions of scientists in the media are still, overwhelmingly, older white males in white lab coats.

Why does it matter? Well, stereotypes have a role in constraining people's beliefs in what they can be and what they can do. They influence whether people can see a place for themselves in science.

There are scientists of all genders (or with no genders). Scientists of all colours. Scientists of all sexual orientations. Scientists with disabilities. Scientists with colourful hair, and piercings and tattoos. Scientists who don't wear lab coats.

Scientists come in all shapes and sizes - so let's show people that.

Dr Mary McMillan is a lecturer at the School of Science and Technology, University of New England