Why it’s important to see “People Like Me” in STEM

March 31, 2016


What does a scientist look like to you? If you imagined someone who looks like the picture to the left you're not alone. Studies have been conducted since 1957 regarding the perception of what a scientist looks like and overwhelmingly across grade levels, gender, racial groups and national borders a scientist is perceived as a Caucasian middle-aged man. This perception can have a large negative effect on women, minorities and those with disabilities because it is harder for them to imagine themselves as scientists.

In this TED talk by Nicole Cabrera Salazar, an Astronomy PhD student, she discusses the stereotypical view towards scientists and how it affects women and minorities. She tells her experiences and those of other women in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.  One of the stories Nicole shares is of her friend Sarah, who loved engineering but also saw herself as a girly-girl and thought that because of the stereotypical view of who an engineer was that she couldn't be both. That was, until she met an engineer who was just like her. 

Beyond visible differences from the stereotypical scientist, perceived competency and intelligence may also play a role in whether youth can view themselves as scientists. 2016 study has found that high school students performed better in science classes when they learned about the intellectual or personal struggles that famous scientists faced, rather than just hearing about their intellectual accomplishments. The improvement was particularly pronounced among low-performing students. The researchers believed that by teaching students that even successful scientists experience failures that the students will be less likely to view failure and difficulty as a reflection of their intelligence or talent and will instead motivate them to learn.

Role models, such as famous scientists, are important for up-and-coming scientists because they are examples of success within the field. Previous research has found that people choose role models who are competent, succeed in their goals and who are relevant or similar to themselves [1]. Therefore, highlighting the struggles faced by famous scientists or showing scientists of different ethnicities, genders or abilities can reach a larger population of people who may not fall into the stereotypical view of who a scientist is. These people may be more inclined to pursue careers in STEM because they can see that someone like them has succeeded.

So how can you help shift the perception of what a stereotypical scientist or STEM professional looks like? Whether you are a parent, teacher or work in a STEM field there are many ways you can help those who face barriers of entry into STEM, including resources and mentorship opportunities.


Teacher Resource for Girls 11-14: People Like Me the resource and app by WISE, uses girls’ natural tendency to create and articulate their self-identity with adjectives to help them see themselves working happily and successfully in STEM. People Like Me includes an app that asks girls questions about their personality and interests to match them with roles in STEM.

Poster: 10 Types of Scientists produced by Ada Lovelace Day: Not only does this poster feature different types of career paths for those who want to be come a scientist, but also features characters of different ethnicities and gender.

Make Possible by SCWIST is a free network for women in STEM where women can mentor and be mentored, create networking connections, focus on professional development and achieve their career aspirations. The network is funded by Status of Women in Canada.

For more great resources click here!


[1] Lin-Siegler, X., Ahn, J. N., Chen, J., Fang, F.-F. A., & Luna-Lucero, M. (2016, February 11). Even Einstein Struggled: Effects of Learning About Great Scientists’ Struggles on High School Students’ Motivation to Learn Science. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.