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Women In Science: Images Matter

Flickr UK Ministry of Defence by-nc-2.0

The images that girls see can affect the career choices they make as young women. That was one of the issues discussed at a conference in Helena Thursday that brought together a diverse group of people who would like to see more young women choose careers in Engineering, or technology.

Imagine a scientist at work in a laboratory. Did you imagine a man or a woman wearing the white lab coat? Psychology professor Jessi Smith says that image of the typical male scientist is also a big part of the reason more women don’t go into careers in science or technology.

“If what you think about, when you close your eyes and think what’s a scientist, and you come up with a white man, you’re statistically correct," said Smith. "It perpetuates the cycle. And so it becomes a very difficult cycle to break.”

Smith, who teaches at Montana State University, was a keynote speaker at the conference, sponsored by the Montana Girls STEM Collaborative, a group searching for ways to attract more women and girls into fields related to science, technology, engineering, and math, STEM, for short. She says, most people don’t consciously discourage girls from taking math or science classes, or pursuing careers in engineering or technology. But images that most of us take for granted, can send a powerful message.

“People conjure up a white man, older, crazy hair, glasses, lab coat, and that does not appeal to really anybody, let alone young women," says Smith. "That’s the knee jerk reaction and we’ve done research showing if you ask people just to draw a scientist, that’s what they draw. And so we have to actively fight against that and it can absolutely be done but it takes a conscious effort.”

Smith describes an experiment, in which young women were ushered into two separate rooms and given a survey about their career choices. In one room, they were surrounded by images depicting male scientists at work. In the other, the images were all gender neutral. The women in the room without pictures of male scientists all around them were more likely to express an openness to careers in science and technology.

“The women sitting in the identical building in the room next door felt more at home than those who were in the Star Trek-y, gizmo-y, disorganized room," said Smith. "It seems so ridiculous that something like the portraits matter, and the magazines matter and the look matters, but it really does.”

She says both men and women use stereotypical images and language that associate science or technology with men. It’s not the fault of one gender or the other. Counteracting this tendency, she says, involves more than just adopting gender neutral language. It means actively reaching out to girls and young women to tell them that science is exciting, that technology and engineering are careers with a bright future, and they are welcome to pursue them.

“I think there was a time that we thought, we don’t do special favors to women, that’s going to undermine the whole cause," said Smith. "I think we’ve moved past that to saying actually, having an open discussion about these topics among our employees and our staff, our students is exactly the way that we can work together and figure out how to solve this.”

The conference sponsored by the Montana Girls STEM Collaborative brought together educators and representatives from some of Montana’s tech-related businesses, to explore mentoring programs, and ways of projecting women as role models in technological fields. The collaborative is also sponsoring mini-grants for a variety of projects, from computer coding boot camps, to an “astronomy after school” club in Bozeman.

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