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The Roots of Men’s Disinterest in the Arts

New research suggests the arts gender gap originates in young boys’ desire to conform to conventional notions of masculinity.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Jordan McQueen/Unsplash)

Why do men have to be dragged to seeing a play or an opera? The statistics are clear: A 2012 National Endowment for the Arts report found sizable gender gaps for attendance for all traditionally highbrow art forms, with women outnumbering males by two-to-one at ballet performances and poetry readings.

“Society-wide cultural norms … define highbrow culture as belonging to the feminine sphere,” notes a research team led by Ghent University sociologist Susan Lagaert. In a newly published study, she and her colleagues present intriguing evidence of how that assumption affects the behavior of adolescents.

They report seventh-grade boys feel pressure to conform to standard conceptions of masculinity, and this motivates them to steer clear of cultural pursuits.

Such pressure — which can be both internal and external — is “strongly related to their low interests in arts-theater-, music-, and literature-related activities,” the researchers write in the journal Sex Roles.

Their study featured 5,227 students from Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. All were in their first year of secondary education, the equivalent of seventh grade in the United States; most were 12 years old.

Students at this grade level were chosen “because the onset of biological puberty in early adolescence makes gender differences particularly salient,” the researchers write. At the same time, they are “old enough to expect that tastes formed in this life phase will remain more or less stable, and continue into adulthood.”

In a survey, the students were asked to estimate their interest (on a four-point scale) in 24 leisure activities. The researchers noted their responses to seven of these: making music, studying drama, painting or drawing, attending plays or dance performances, using the library, visiting an art museum, and reading.

Another set of four questions was designed to determine the extent to which they felt they were typical of their gender. On a scale of zero to four, the students rated their agreement with such statements as “I feel that my personality is similar to that of most (members of my gender).”

A final set of four questions measure the extent to which they felt pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. Again on a scale of zero to four, they rated their agreement with such statements as “I think it is important to act just like other” members of my gender.

To measure outside pressure, males responded to the statement “The boys I know would be upset if I wanted to learn an activity that only girls usually do.” Females were similarly asked whether their girlfriends would be upset if they expressed interest in something typically associated with boys.

The results: “We found that the more typical a male adolescent considers himself to be, the lower his interest in highbrow culture,” the researchers report. “The more gender congruent a female adolescent is, the higher her interest in highbrow cultural activities.”

Perhaps more importantly, they found “the more pressure for gender conformity a young man experiences, the lower his interest in highbrow culture.”

Young women under similar conformist pressure were more interested in cultural activities, but only to a small degree. This difference reflects the fact “it is more difficult for young men to like an activity perceived as feminine than it is for young women to dislike a feminine activity,” the researchers write.

These results are problematic for a number of reasons. Many studies link studying the arts, and music in particular, to a variety of cognitive and social benefits. A 2014 study, no doubt reflecting the dynamics described here, found females consistently outnumber males in high school bands, orchestras, and choirs. In a very real sense, young men are missing out.

To help change that, Lagaert and her colleagues suggest schools create “safe environments where there is little pressure to conform to stereotypes,” allowing them to explore their creative side. This also means strong anti-bullying policies, since young men involved in the arts are bullied at higher rates than their non-artistic peers.

“Schools and teachers should stimulate pupils, young men and women alike, to use arts and poetry to express themselves,” they write. They further suggest that teachers of art and literature might consider “focusing on topics that are closer to young men’s interests,” to get around stereotypical thinking.

Perhaps a strong dose of Ernest Hemingway, followed by a David Mamet chaser?