Friday, 25 June 2010

Can a fact be a stereotype?

It's easy to come up with a knee-jerk reaction that labels information you don't like as a 'stereotype' hence dismissable. But can something that is factually accurate be a stereotype? According to my trusty dictionary, a stereotype is 'A preconceived and oversimplified idea of the characteristics which typify a person, situation, etc.'. Although it is not explicit, I would suggest 'preconceived and oversimplified' implies being factually inaccurate.

As soon as we accuse someone of assuming a stereotype to be true, the suggestion is that they aren't reporting facts but rather some biassed idea that doesn't reflect reality.

I was fascinated, therefore to see this assertion on the Geek Feminism blog:

It looks like a visit to Fermilab has no impact on boys’ gender stereotypes about scientists, but it has a strong impact on challenging girls’ gender stereotypes about scientists. For girls, there was a 58% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings; for boys, there was a 0% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings.

(Emphasis from original.)

Now let me be very clear. I am 100 percent in favour of there being no gender differentiation in the selection of people to be scientists, and I believe that everyone, female and male, should be encouraged in an interest in science. I would be delighted if we had equal representation of both sexes in the sciences. And I am very disappointed if the lab visit had no impact on boys' portrayal of a scientist.

But the repeated use of the word 'stereotype' seems to be misleading. There are many more male scientists than female (particularly in the physical sciences.) The picture above (apologies for fuzziness, it is sealed in a glass-fronted frame) is my final year physics group. Despite some difficulties identifying who is what due to a lot of long hair, there are many, many more men than women.

My problems are twofold. One is the misuse of the term 'stereotype', the other the odd nature of the experiment described. The author is looking for students to switch from representing scientists as male to female after a lab visit. But even in ideal conditions of a 50:50 gender distribution, there would be something wrong if all the scientists pictured were female. That too would be a misrepresentation. But not a stereotype.


  1. Good point. It is actually quite ironic that focusing on "stereotypes" as a source of and solution to problems is itself stereotypical behaviour - expending energy doing the wrong thing, which distracts attention and effort from the fundamental issues. I deplore the dumbing down of science in the media - Horizon is a case in point. Science should not just be "fun" but should be challenging and intriguing to attract the best people and the best teachers. Solving the "problem" of gender representation is just diverting attention away from the real issue, that teaching science no longer attracts enough good quality people. I am sure that repeatedly representing scientists as wearing white lab coats and blowing up things with custard powder is part of the image problem and has made things worse, not increased accessibilty.

  2. Well, I'd have to quibble with that. Scientists may consist of many more men than women ... but not no women at all. So perceiving scientists as only men, is a stereotype, even though there's a lot of truth in it (as there is in all stereotypes, at least initially). To use a different example, it would not be a stereotype to portray mothers as women (because it's logically impossible for them to be anything else) but it would be a stereotype to portray the primary parent as a mother - sure, 90% of the time you'd be right but it would still jar with, say, a child whose primary carer was their father. So yes, I'd say that drawing a picture with only male scientists in it would be an over-simplification - and drawing a picture with only female scientists would be a distortion - but if these kids want to be scientists themselves, then observing that some scientists in fact are women seems to me like a good start in their career of investigating the world as it really is.

  3. I'd say it was more like it's not a stereotype to portray a person having two legs. Similarly the most logical portrayal of a scientist is statistically male, so not a stereotype. But I see your point.

  4. Are women really as uncommon as that? Maybe in physics, but the scientists I worked with were mainly botanists and taxonomists and it's nothing like that male dominated. Of course, to a physicist, maybe they're not scientists at all .... but there's a whole other stereotype.

  5. 'All science is either physics or stamp collecting.' Ernest Rutherford.

    I am not worthy to argue with Rutherford.