Advancing Science: How Bias Holds Us Back

Neuron - Volume 99, Issue 4, 22 August 2018, Pages 635-639
Maria Asplund, Cristin G.Welle

If you ask a 5 year old to draw a scientist, roughly half of the drawings will feature a woman (Miller et al., 2018). Ask those same kids at age 10 and the percentage of female scientists drawn drops to 25% and continues to decline, for both males and females, throughout the teenage years (Figure 1A). And it sticks with us as we get older: extensive research shows that we carry our childhood perception of what a scientist looks like into adulthood. The Harvard implicit association test (IAT;, which uses reaction times to assess subtle associations between groups of words, reveals that both adult women and men have a strong association of the word “male” with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics, while “female” is associated with words related to humanities and family (Nosek et al., 2009). This example demonstrates the pervasive influence of implicit bias, defined as subconscious associations that occur without awareness, intention, or control. We clearly don’t “grow out” of the associations we learn in childhood about who is a scientist.