Arts, Sciences And The STEM Gender Gap

Hedy Lamarr was a famous Hollywood actor best known for her role in Samson & Delilah; she also was the inventor of a weapons communication system that was a precursor to wireless technologies including Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Her story represents the perfect counter-example to many preconceived ideas: that beauty and brains don’t go together; that science is not feminine; but also, that people are either artistic or science-orientated.

Opposing the sciences to the humanities, particularly the arts, has been a persistent trend over recent decades, with countless debates and essays focused on demonstrating that one is more important than the other. Sometimes contextualised as the left side of the brain versus the right side – or logical thinking versus artistic creativity – the two are often described as polar opposites. The split was famously discussed in The Two Cultures, the first part of an influential 1959 Rede Lecture given by British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow.

This idea that one is either “arty” or “scientific” likely finds its roots in psychological research, which suggests that two types of thinkers can be distinguished: convergent thinkers, who are more likely to be good at science subjects at school and divergent thinking, who are more common in the arts and humanities. Such research was however carried out decades ago, since then, studies have shown that convergent and divergent thinking abilities aren’t systematically innate, neither are they necessarily mutually exclusive. Importantly, new evidence shows considerable overlap in the cognitive processes supporting both scientific and artistic creativity and supports the idea that art and science students have similar creative problem solving skills.

Despite this, the divide is still very much alive in school and university environments, where art and science faculties are well separated and introduced to students as leading to very different career options. Unsurprisingly, maybe, reports show that students do tend to categorise themselves as either an artist or a scientist. More alarmingly, a large proportion of children perceive science as an uncreative discipline with little opportunity for autonomy, discussion and design, best suited to the brainiest in the class. Science and creativity have been reported to be seen by students as opposite – whereby a career containing one cannot contain the other.

Opposing arts and sciences, combined with the subsequent stereotypical view that scientists and other logical thinkers are less likely to be artistic or creative, could have unintended consequences, likely contributing to reduced levels of, and less diverse participation in, key subjects at A-level and beyond. Reports indeed show that girls are far more likely to aspire to arts-related careers, with 64 per cent of girls aspiring to careers in the arts among 12-13 year old students.

At the same time, the idea that girls are more creative than boys has been widely promoted, with e.g. government figures reporting that 71% of five-year-old girls are imaginative in art and design, music, dance, role play and stories (compared with 52% of boys). It isn’t then far stretched to assume that the gender divide in career aspirations at a young age is driven by societal expectations linking gender and creative abilities, and that these stereotypes ultimately contributes to the under-representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

If we are to successfully diversify the STEM workforce, we do need, among other things, to stop propagating this idea that science and art live in separated boxes. Countless scientists have indeed been known to engage in arts and crafts pursuits, and in many cases science has allowed people to be artistic in ways they could not possibly have imagined: just think about the physics and maths behind games or movie post-production. Similarly, the arts do not just provide ways to illustrate and visualise current science and technology; they drive innovation – as illustrated by many science fiction books and movies that introduced technologies way before they were made possible.

To demonstrate that creativity is at the core of both science and the arts, Soapbox Science, an initiative that brings cutting-edge science to the streets and promote gender equality in STEM careers, is launching a new series of events which will see pairs from the contrasting disciplines collaborate to explore ways of communicating their chosen topics and presenting them at UK art festivals. The series is kicking off at the London Thamesmead Festival on Saturday 16 September, with events also planned for Light Night in Leeds at the beginning of October and Lincoln’s Frequency Festival at the end of the month.

So if you remain to be convinced that Arts can benefit Science, that scientific endeavours requires creativity, or that women can excel in both disciplines, then please give one of these events a go – more information about these events can be found here.

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