Model scientists

By Phil Plait | October 4, 2008 11:14 am

If you ask 1000 young girls ages 13 – 18 what profession they want to be, how many do you think would want to be scientists?

According to a poll done in the UK and reported by The Guardian, the answer is 14%.

How many want to be models?



While again this poll was done in the UK, I suspect it would be pretty closely reflected in the US as well.

There are two interesting things about these numbers. The obvious one is that many more girls want to be models than scientists. That’s disturbing. And it’s obvious why; every TV show dealing with models depicts the life as glamorous; even the ones where we see contests with models dropping out in tears can be interpreted as glamorous because the winner is showered with accolades and, well, glamor. We tend to forget the misses and remember the hits, so I would think a young girl watching that would also tend to see the winner and forget the losers.

I don’t think we need to go deeply into the psychology here; it’s been analyzed everywhere. Certainly in the US we are not showing good images to our girls; it’s aggravating and seriously hurting our culture (Jezebel has one potential solution, but I don’t think it would help since it still would glamorize behavior instead of simply praising it).

But something struck me as I was thinking this over. 14% of the girls polled want to be scientists. By itself — that is, not compared with models or any other category — what does that number mean? Well, how many scientists are there in the US (again, the poll was done in the UK, but let’s assume their numbers reflect ours)? A brief search yielded several numbers (like, say, here), but a rough average would be about 3 million. There are 300 million people in the US, so that means 1% are scientists.

Hey, wait a sec! This means that the poll indicates that proportionally, there are far more girls wanting to be scientists than there really are scientists.

That’s actually a good thing. Lots of girls want to be scientists!

So interpreting the poll — assuming it’s accurate — is interesting. I absolutely agree with the analysis that way too many girls, both proportionally and in real numbers, want to be models, and I also agree that the media (which remember, reflects to some degree the population) is a big part of the problem.

But I also think those numbers aren’t totally depressing. If that many girls want to be scientists, then we’re doing something right. Maybe we need to give the media their due. I see more women scientists on TV shows, more women in positions of authority, more women who are smart and hard working and shown as complex people, and not just eyecandy.

Having said all this, I want to stress that a) the actual questions and choices for answers weren’t listed in the article, b) I am extrapolating from a UK poll to the US, and c) I’m not a social scientist. So my conclusions come with a series of caveats.

And there’s more to consider. First, how many boys of the same age want to be scientists? I wonder what that percentage would be. Higher? Lower? I’m not sure.

Second, we need to think past the immediate numbers. Roughly 1% of the people in this country are scientists. What if we had asked them when they were 13 – 18 what they wanted to be? Would the numbers still be the same? If 14% of them wanted to be scientists, what happened along the way to them becoming scientists? You expect a natural attrition; some people lose interest in school, or don’t have the aptitude, or there weren’t enough jobs… you can think of more, I’m sure. Knowing why we lose so many students of either sex along the way is a topic all by itself, and one I honestly don’t know much about, so I’d rather not speculate.

And finally, are there special pressures on girls who want to be scientists? You betcha! So just looking at the overall attrition rate isn’t enough; it has to be broken down by sex, by social status, by economic status, by location, by family type. This is a complicated situation, and difficult to boil down to a simple solution.

But one thing I’m taking away from this: a lot of girls want to be scientists, far more than is represented in the general adult population. That’s a good thing, and even if we can’t support that many scientists, we can sure support that scientific attitude. I’d love to see everyone thinking more like scientists, and that’s something we need to nurture.

Tip o’ the lab coat to SkepChick.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Science

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