The Arts Council of Ireland has commissioned a new study that suggests we need to tackle gender stereotyping from a very young age
A primary school teacher told me recently that when she announces to her class of 7 to 10 year olds that it’s play time, the girls tend to pick up a crayon, while the boys pick up a toy.
It’s a scene we are all familiar with. The tendency among girls to participate in more creative and cultural activities than their male peers isn’t anything particularly new. But it’s one which has never been measured in any scientific or clear way – until today.
The highly-gendered nature of how children participate in the arts and culture is one of the most striking features of a major Arts Council/ESRI report published today.
The report finds that, even among children as young as 3-years old, girls are much more likely than boys to participate in the arts and cultural pursuits, such as attending a drama class.
According to the report, 42% of 5-year-old boys paint or draw every day compared to 67% of girls the same age. The same pattern emerges when it comes to playing make-believe games. Interestingly, Dr Emer Smyth of the ESRI, who conducted the study, says there appears to be no ready explanation as to why 5-year-old girls are much more likely to paint, draw, dance or enjoy music than boys of the same age.
There are also striking differences in the frequency of reading by gender at ages of 9 and 13, with girls from working class backgrounds spending more time reading than boys from middle class families in some cases.
Similarly, girls aged 9 are twice as likely to attend a cultural class or club than boys.
It’s an unusual finding when one considers the abundance of high-profile, seemingly influential young males in the music and entertainment industries.
On the flipside, the report found that girls between 9 and 13 spend much less time on computer games than boys but roughly the same amount of time watching television.
The Arts Council/ESRI report is significant because it is the first baseline study of its kind in Ireland. It drew on Growing Up In Ireland data and analysed 19,702 children aged 3, 5, 9 and 13 years-old over six months. Not only did it assess the level of arts and cultural participation among Irish children and young people, but also the impact that this engagement has on their cognitive development and emotional wellbeing.
Previous studies in this space have merely looked at how often children attend a drama class or the theatre, with no consideration given to the longer-term impact it has on a child’s literacy or numeracy levels or on their socio-emotional capabilities or inter-personal skills.
As the national body for the development of arts in Ireland, the Arts Council commissioned the research because we wanted to explore the creative and cultural experiences of Irish children, so that we can make evidence-based decisions to help more young people have more opportunities to access the arts.
While many of the outcomes make for fascinating reading for parents, teachers, childcare providers and anyone with a broader interest in child welfare, the remarkable difference between how boys and girls engage with the arts gives us in the Arts Council pause for thought as policy-makers.
Even among 13 year-olds attending secondary schools the report shows up stark contrasts in how the various sexes study arts subjects. We now know that 15% of 13-year old boys take music in school. That rises to 28% for girls of the same age. Similar patterns occur in art classes - 36% of boys take up art, compared to 54% of 13 year-old girls.
So what does the report mean? Not only for those of us making policy decisions which determine the opportunities children get to access the arts, but also for Mums and Dads wondering how they can get their kids more creatively and culturally active?
As policymakers, we must ensure that we challenge gender stereotyping from a young age and this will require us ensuring that arts and cultural participation forms part of a quality pre-school experience. This would also ensure that all social groups get equal exposure.
For families, the research confirms in crystal clear terms that arts and cultural participation leads to a range of positive outcomes for children, including improved numeracy and literacy skills, better socio-emotional capacity, enhanced academic performance and more positive attitudes towards school.
Reading to your child for 15 minutes every night and having access to books at home enhances vocabulary development in particular among 3 to 5 year-olds, while painting and drawing reduces socio-emotional difficulties.
We all know that, at the end of the day, girls will be girls and boys will be boys. But as this research shows, a child’s experience of arts and culture is clearly impacted by their parents, other personal circumstances and decisions made by public bodies like the Arts Council.
Together we must work to re-prioritise our focus on the arts and on culture so we can make enlightening creative opportunities a reality for more children in Ireland.
Orlaith McBride is the Director of the Arts Council of Ireland.