IF/THEN® project offers glimpse into how science museums depict gender

Last year, the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) joined the IF/THEN® Coalition, an initiative of Lyda Hill Philanthropies, as part of our effort to support science centers and museums in engaging all people in science and technology. As a member of the Coalition, ASTC launched the Gender Representation Toolkit, a set of resources designed to help museums collect data on the visual representation of gender in museum content including exhibits, signage, program materials, websites, and promotional materials. By collecting these data, museums are able to take stock of their efforts to equitably represent gender across their content, identify successes, and highlight areas for growth. The Gender Representation Toolkit is just one of the resources ASTC is providing to members through our work on the IF/THEN® Initiative: we have also awarded approximately $500,000 in grants to member museums and—in partnership with the National Girls Collaborative Project—connected ASTC-member museums to the IF/THEN® Collection, the largest digital library of media depicting women scientists and STEM professionals.

These three efforts support the work of ASTC-member science centers and museums to better illustrate the gender diversity that exists among STEM professionals and make positive depictions available and easy to use for informal STEM learning organizations. This project is part of ASTC’s broader work to champion diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in STEM and ensure science museums represent the diverse communities they serve. By identifying and sharing trends from this data, we hope you will be able to view your museum’s content through a new lens and discover successes and areas for growth in your museum.

About the data

ASTC’s membership includes over 470 science centers and museums in nearly 50 countries around the world. Fifty-one ASTC-member museums—representing 28 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Australia—used the toolkit to collect data and shared it with ASTC.

For each image of a person in museum content, data collectors recorded what type of museum content they appeared in, if they looked to be an adult or a child, if they were doing STEM activities, if they were perceived as a woman/girl, man/boy, or neither, and if they appeared to be gender non-conforming. All data represents the personal perceptions of the data collector, and does not necessarily represent the actual gender identity, age, or other factors of the people in the images. Given the nature of this data collection effort, we cannot predict if it is representative of the entire museum field but have tried to identify emerging trends. For more information on definitions of terms and guidelines provided for collecting data, please see the full toolkit.

Approximately half of the data shared with us came from webpages, which may be a result of the timeframe data collection took place: almost all data was collected after the COVID-19 pandemic forced essentially all science centers and museums around the world to close their doors to the public—and often to staff.

ASTC continues to collect data from additional museums and will release a comprehensive report on our findings in August 2021. As the pandemic begins to wane, we expect that more museums will be in a position to contribute. Learn how your museum can participate below!

Findings

Women are depicted less frequently than men in museum content

Across the data shared with us by 51 museums, 44% of individuals depicted in museum content were perceived as women or girls. However, stark differences arise when you look at the differences between representation of adults and children, types of museum content, and who is depicted as a STEM professional. Gender representation was more equal among depictions of children (50% girls and 44% boys) as compared with adults (40% women and 57% men). In some instances, an individual’s perceived gender was unclear or neutral (6% of all children and 4% of all adults).

Less than 1% of all observed individuals were perceived to be gender non-conforming, which is defined in the toolkit as someone who has visual cues (e.g., clothing, hair style, etc.) that are primarily different from what is typical for their perceived gender. There were fewer gender non-conforming adults (0.7% of all adults) than children (1.1% of all children). Women and girls were perceived to be gender non-conforming at a slightly higher rate than men and boys (1.2% and 0.6%, respectively).

The majority of STEM professionals depicted in museums are men

For those images and videos in which the persons depicted were engaged in STEM activities (reported as “doing STEM” for children and “STEM professional” for adults), we saw large differences between adults and children. Of all children perceived as “doing STEM,” there were more girls than boys (53% and 42%, respectively). However, STEM professionals were much less commonly depicted as women than as men (35% and 62%, respectively).

Exhibits have the least representation of women

While men and women were portrayed in roughly equal numbers in marketing materials and websites, exhibits feature much lower percentages of women and women STEM professionals, just 26% and 21% respectively. Across all types of museum content (i.e., exhibits, websites, program materials, signage, and promotional materials), girls and women were more commonly featured on websites and in promotional materials (52% and 53%, respectively) than they were in exhibits and program materials (28% and 35%, respectively). This same pattern of gender representation across types of museum content is present when looking at adult STEM professionals and children “doing STEM.” In exhibit content, only 23% of the STEM professionals or children “doing STEM” depicted were perceived as women or girls. Interestingly, this number varies greatly between children and adults: 54% of children depicted “doing STEM” in exhibits were perceived as girls, while only 21% of adult STEM professionals depicted in exhibits were perceived as women.

Next steps

These initial findings show there is work to be done in achieving more equitable gender representation in the imagery museums display, particularly when it comes to depictions of STEM professionals. ASTC received an overwhelming number of applications during the first two rounds of the IF/THEN® Gender Equity Grant program, showing the high level of interest and commitment across museums to making changes toward more equitable representation.

As we continue to collect data over the next few months, we will observe whether the trends noted in the first round of data collection remain constant or if new trends arise. Going forward, ASTC will collect additional information (for example, what proportion of a museum’s content is included, and the age of exhibits surveyed) that will enhance our analysis and be shared in our forthcoming comprehensive report.

Get involved

You can help us reach our goal of collecting data from 50 more museums by April 30, 2021. To participate, sign up and download the toolkit. You can also apply to receive an award of $500 to support your museum’s effort!

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