Sanderson’s Fifth Postulate goes like this:
All stereotypes are true.
One of the things we’ve been trying to do in the public understanding of science community is dispel the mythical image of ‘the scientist’ as being white, male, bearded, and wearing a labcoat. Oh, and probably also sandals. With socks.
In this endeavour we have, of course, been spectacularly unsuccessful. Scientists, in the public’s eye, are still male, still wear labcoats, and still, more often than not, talk in strangled German accents. A dozen or more years of concerted effort by some seriously effective communicators has had pretty much no effect I can discern. Why? Well, there’s the somewhat inconvenient problem that the stereotype has at least a vague connection with reality, with the possible exception of the strangled German accent. It’s unpopular to point this out, but if I believe it to be the case, words like ‘flogging’ and ‘equine’ and ‘deceased’ come to mind. In combination.
However, it doesn’t appear that we’ve been uniformly unsuccessful. Sure, everyone still thinks scientists are men with bubbling test tubes, but the generation heading through school and university now will change that. Why? Because they’re girls. Boys’ results in science and maths have been tending downward in exactly the same way oil prices haven’t; girls, in comparison, are doing rather well. And, reasonably enough, they see interesting and varied careers in… well, often medicine, actually, but nobody realises medicine isn’t really a science until far too late, and that’s a whole other kettle of smelly fish anyway.
As a result, a significant majority of newcomers to the public understanding of science industry are women, and guess what? They’re all intent on dispelling the myth of the male scientist. Because… why, exactly? Just what are we trying to achieve here?
Perhaps we should be adopting the Action Man approach: taking an old, tired, somewhat crufty image, and updating it to make it more appealing to today’s kids. Specifically boys, since the girls seem to have the sense to get along quite well anyway, thanks very much.
(This post summarises a deliberately inflammatory remark made in discussion at the BIG Event a couple of weeks ago.)