International day of women and girls in science. The role of illustration in the creation of scientific vocations.
On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, February 11, I reflect on the role of scientific illustration in the efforts made towards gender equality in scientific careers.
This is a path that we build among many: fathers and mothers, educators, institutions, scientists, legislators, journalists, communicators…
As a fundamental piece in scientific communication, illustration plays an important role in explaining science, telling its story, presenting references, inspiring and creating scientific vocations among girls.
To talk about this topic, I was invited by the Deputación da Coruña to participate in the IV Xornadas: A LUZ DA CIENCIA con el tema “Pensamento Científico y Xénero”, on January 13, 14 and 15. In these talks, several guests reflect and present their projects as representatives of women in the professional scientific world, or as communicators and agents to encourage girls towards a scientific vocation, especially focused on what is known as STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), where several studies recognize that the gender gap is considerably serious.
© Isa Loureiro
As illustrators, how can we contribute to closing the gender gap in STEM fields?
The importance of illustrated books and publications when it comes to educating children is undeniable: they help explain and visualize complex topics, they are easier to process and memorize, they create an emotional connection with the reader, they combine aesthetic pleasure and fun to scientific knowledge.
This connection that the illustrations generate with the readers is not only due to the aesthetic value, but also to the representation. Representation leads to empathy, and empathy leads to involvement and commitment to the illustrated subject.
When one feels represented or identified by a character in an illustration, our interest increases, we imagine ourselves in the role and we get actively involved. That is why the balance of gender representation is so important in the leading roles of scientific communication, whether for children, teenagers or adults.
This point leads me to ask the following questions and look for examples:
In school books and popular science children’s books, is there a balance of representation of both genders in the leading roles? And particularly in STEM science content?
In medical scientific illustration, is there a balance in the representation of gender in aspects that affect men and women equally?
Is there sufficient representation and communication of female references in science, both past and present? And of the STEM areas? Or does everything always come down to the same 2 or 3 examples?
Is the illustration of “more aesthetic” subjects such as biology and botany better accepted than the illustrations of subjects related to STEM areas? What resources can we use to represent them in a more attractive way?
We see more and more examples of popular science children’s books where special care is taken to represent boys, girls, ethnic groups, cultures, reference scientists… in a more balanced way. As an example, I have been able to talk about the popular children’s book “The Human Brain Explained by Dr. Santiago Ramón y Cajal” Illustrated by me and written by Dr. Pablo Barrecheguren (Ed. Juventud), where the character of Ramón y Cajal (essential to when talking about neuroscience) explains various topics about the human brain to the girl protagonist who accompanies him throughout the book, without forgetting to refer to great female neuroscientists such as Rita Levi-Montalcini or Suzana Herculano-Houzel.
In the STEM areas I think there is still a long way to go: the illustration in STEM educational books and games is still very marked by male representation, even though some very interesting positive examples can be found: books on Quantum Physics and on Relativity ( Sheddad Kaid-Salah Ferrón and Eduard Altarriba), the science books by Carlos Pazos, or the comic book by Sidney Padua “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage” for young people/adults that tells adventures inspired by the biography of Ada Lovelace, mathematic considered the mother of computing.
Making the subjects of engineering, mathematics, computer science… visually striking is a real challenge for illustrators, because the appeal of these areas is more conceptual and practical than visual. Greater creative effort is required when representing and explaining more abstract and complex topics. We can rely on narrative resources: create contexts, characters and stories to introduce this knowledge and, for this, it is important to create a close collaboration with scientific communicators in these areas.
It is the responsibility of the illustrators/designers to avoid the clichés of gender representation in educational books and games. Do not target content specifically at boys or girls based on outdated and sexist preconceptions, but introduce STEM topics in a visually appealing way to everyone while inviting practice and experimentation.
About the conference “A LUZ DA CIENCIA: Pensamento Científico y Xénero”:
These three days of conferences have taken place in the Pazo de Mariñán and also in the National Museum of Science and Technology, in A Coruña.
Representatives from the Catalan Foundation for Research and Innovation, the “Galician Network for Research” and representatives of science communication have participated in them.
The different talks reflected on the data on the current state of the gender gap in science, on legislation, initiatives, projects and communication to create STEM scientific vocations among girls and open new paths to equally reach managerial positions in science.