Why Art Is the Key to Closing the STEM Gender Gap

Research shows that more boys than girls are likely to pursue careers in math and science fields.
(Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images)
Dec 2, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sophia Lepore is an editorial intern at TakePart.

Imagine you’re babysitting two 12-year-olds, one boy and one girl. Which is more likely to be playing video games, and which one is painting a picture? Thanks to gender stereotypes, tech is often seen as boys’ domain, while arts and crafts are assumed to be for girls.

STEM—the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math—doesn’t exactly conjure visions of toys and games. But a recent survey by Two Bit Circus, a Los Angeles–based engineering entertainment company, shows a significant gender divide between boys’ and girls’ interest in STEM that experts hope can be closed by child’s play: in other words, finding ways to make school more fun and engaging for kids.

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“Play is a wonderful place to start learning,” Brent Bushnell, CEO of Two Bit Circus, told TakePart. “Play is self-directed, play is something you want to do, and you’re learning, so toys end up being a perfect foothold to make a meaningful learning change.”

For the report, Two Bit Circus surveyed more than 500 parents with children ages six to 14 to measure how much parents know about STEM programming. Results from the survey demonstrated a lack of awareness of extracurricular activities and toys that are meant to reinforce STEM teachings, critical tools in encouraging youths to pursue these fields.

While both boys and girls demonstrated favoritism for science and math, the most significant gender divide lies between interest in the arts and technology. When it comes to technology, only 7 percent of girls’ parents reported that their daughter’s favorite subject was technology, compared with the 35 percent whose favorite was art. Twenty-three percent of parents with boys said technology was their son’s favorite subject, and only 13 percent said art was his favorite.

“Culturally, especially in America, we have an issue,” Bushnell said. “Because early technology was hard to use, really nerdy, antisocial people were the ones who did it, and so consequently we associated nerdy, antisocial people with STEM.”

By recognizing the severe gap between technology and art, Bushnell believes rebranding STEM as STEAM, to include art, could help to close the gender divide.

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“STEAM is more accessible, because it shows kids can make art and still be doing STEM,” he said.

In analyzing children’s interests beyond the classroom walls, 99 percent of parents with daughters found their children use forms of arts and crafts in their leisure time. Researchers are hoping that implementing STEAM programs will provide a gateway for higher rates of female engagement in STEM.

“Now that technology’s gotten easier to use and is more acceptable, STEM is for everybody, but we still have this cultural legacy thinking that it’s hard and not for me and not something I want to do,” Bushnell said.

Alongside the survey, Two Bit Circus launched a Kickstarter for the creation of a paper craft and technology kit. By creating this kit that encourages critical thinking skills and implements STEM teachings, researchers are hoping to extend interests into everyday activities.

“We know we want more diversity in the STEM field. If we’re going to get women into STEM, we need to start with something they like,” Bushnell said. “The art and the creativity is the fun. That’s the hook we can use to up these science, technology, engineering, and math skills to this new group.”