Stereotypes

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.)

3 Comments on "Stereotypes"


  1. Alan Moore (the guy who did “The Watchmen” and various other ground breaking comic books) has a series called Promethea going at the moment. There’s a group of four or five protagonists called the “Science Heros” who are, well, labcoat-types who run around doing superhero stuff.
    It’s interesting to see where he goes with that basic notion.

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  2. Gosh darn, that reminds me, Vinay, I meant to recommend Promethea to you yonks ago. It struck me as precisely the sort of thing that would appeal to you, especially the extended metaphysical tour through the kabbalah. If you haven’t read that far into it, keep going – it’s largely Moore’s musing on his own spiritualism and makes for fascinating reading.
    As for the science heroes, they’re largely a throwaway device to add some texture to the environment, not to mention some highly effective humour. The group is actually called the Five Swell Guys, although one of them, Marv I believe, is a woman due to an unfortunate science accident.
    There. I’m all geeked out now.

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  3. I don’t think that you can lump “Science” into one big pot like that. At least in the States, girls may be doing more in the medicine related natural sciences (biology, chemistry), but they are still generally not interested in math, physics, and computer science.
    My guess is that this is precisely because of the stereotypes involved. While girls and boys do as well at math and science at young ages, their test scores (and course choices) often seem to diverge in high school.
    So in my mind, there are really two separate problems: 1) that science is not cool (I suppose an Action Man approach might help this) and 2) science is especially not cool for girls (Action Man would exacerbate this).
    **raging feminist mode on**
    Some might say that more women are in the medical sciences because it appeals to their innate nurturing instincts. I think that’s just a justification, and consequently once the men catch on that medicine is all about nurturing and caring, they’ll cease to be interested and doctor salaries will drop.
    *grumble grumble*
    **/raging feminist mode off**

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