Whilst flying back from holiday recently, I watched two things on the plane: a BBC documentary about Hans Zimmer and The Fabelmans directed by Steven Spielberg. Both served their purpose as entertainment (albeit the documentary is much better) and also gave me food for thought on none other than STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Music) industries.
Although this wouldn’t be most people’s main takeaway from the documentary and film — should they watch both in quick succession — they reinforced longstanding ideas I’ve considered on why women and men don’t go into STEM in equal measures. Spielberg and Zimmer are a director and composer, of course; it’s easy to think this means “creative” and has nothing to do with other academic fields. However, they are also nerds with huge amounts of technical and practical nous, which both music composition and directing require.
Typically when politicians, teachers and otherwise talk about the gender gap in STEM — and, uncoincidentally, film and music — they blame external factors for the fact fewer women than men want to go into these fields. It’s fashionable to believe that the latter have not been encouraged enough towards STEM subjects, or worse, that they have been told that they cannot do them. Thus, all solutions to the supposed “problem” of asymmetry become about cheerleading women.
Spielberg and Zimmer undermine the notion that socialisation is the main driver of interest and ability in technical careers. Far from Zimmer’s teachers showering him with praise, he was expelled from multiple schools for behaving badly. Afterwards he played in bands, and one thing led to another — “another” turning out to be the discovery of a large synthesiser Zimmer uses to this day. It was instrumental (excuse the pun) to his success. Crucially, Zimmer did not have to be taught the instrument (at least, not beyond a basic level). No one was better than him at using it; hence he was able to export his tricks to Hollywood and gain legendary status.
Sammy’s art becomes a manifestation of their shared nerdiness
Similarly, Spielberg was not ushered into filmmaking, judging by the storyline of his semi-autobiographical film The Fabelmans. The movie is most famous for exploring Spielberg’s mother’s affair with a family friend, which he captured on camera as a child. Another interesting element is that Sammy (the protagonist based on Spielberg) masters his art alone, having been inspired by his first trip to the cinema. Though Sammy’s mother — a self-involved woman who plays the piano beautifully — keeps telling him that he shares her creativity, he equally takes after his father, a nerd with bags of practical nous. Whilst Sammy/Spielberg’s father disapproves of his son’s filmmaking, viewing it as more of a hobby than a serious career, he eventually accepts his son’s choice. Paradoxically, Sammy’s art becomes a manifestation of their shared nerdiness.
It’s easy to think that Zimmer and Spielberg are too exceptional to explain widespread trends in STEM, that nothing from these two major talents could be extrapolated to the rest of humankind. Yet their career trajectories are paralleled elsewhere. The industry that most comes to mind is coding. Go into any workplace IT department, and you will always find some, if not most, of the coders are self-taught and continue to learn independently as technology evolves. The field continues to be dominated by men.
Music, too, has always been called out for its “diversity problem”, with the most obvious gender imbalance in music production. As with filmmaking, the sector has inequities. Class is more likely to be the big factor in whether you make it, however, from being able to buy expensive equipment to having industry connections. Beyond that, almost anyone can have a go at trying to be the next Mark Ronson, David Guetta, Nile Rodgers or Jack Antonoff, due to the easy accessibility of industry-standard music software and online tutorials. This is something I know about personally, as I am currently learning the music software Logic (more on this later).
The inclusion of male examples above is not to be facetious. When I Googled “famous music producers”, I was offered tens of male examples and just two women (Linda Perry and Missy Elliott) — something STEM policymakers would find deeply problematic. Yet, the imbalance could simply reflect that men are more likely to have obsessive, technological hobbies and are therefore more prevalent in industries that reward these. It’s worth considering that there are plenty of extremely successful women in music, from Beyonce to Adele to Lady Gaga, but maybe they don’t want to spend hours arranging notation in a dark room on a laptop.
If there is any gendered social barrier to music/ film otherwise production, it is the distribution of domestic labour between men and women. Women continue to take on the brunt of household chores and/ or caring for dependents, giving them less time for dorky hobbies. How many mums can you imagine beavering away on their music software whilst dad cooks the dinner? In the BBC documentary on Zimmer, it was noteworthy to see his children comment on how little he saw them whilst they were growing up. Afterwards, this revelation made me cross — it often seems to be women helping men realise their dreams and not the other way around. You could also say that Zimmer has paid a heavy price for his technical obsession, playing more with a synthesiser than his own children. There’s an antisocial, addictive side to creative success.
Part of the reason I find dorky creatives interesting is that I am creative, without the dorky bits. Using Logic emphasises this to me. It feels like trying to ice-skate backwards; even “introductory” videos on Youtube sound as though they’re being spoken in Martian. I am struck by how male the space is and have yet to find a video of a woman talking about the software.
Technological advances may actually widen gender differences
The progressive view on this would be that men feel more confident to post tutorials, as a result of socialisation. I’m not so convinced. There’s never been a more meritocratic environment online to share and learn, but gender imbalances are pronounced.
A more unfashionable conclusion is that technological advances may actually widen gender differences. We could be looking at an extension of The Gender Equality Paradox, a theory that suggests the more egalitarian a society is, the more men and women diverge in career choices. It is not that women are unsuccessful online, incidentally — they can monetise and share skills and knowledge incredibly well — just that they may gravitate towards and dominate different online spaces to men.
Why could this divergence happen? As a psychology graduate I was taught that the reason is sexual differentiation in the brain. These days it feels quasi-blasphemous to repeat anything from the course, such is the prevalence of woke ideology. If you say women and men are different, people assume you must be claiming that “women are inferior”. No respectable psychologist has ever made this argument, however.
What makes people “inferior” is the pay and value we attribute to skills and types of intelligence. Women tend to be more agreeable than men on average, making them arguably more suited to roles involving human interaction. Yet many roles that necessitate agreeableness — nursing, caring — have some of the worst salaries compared to roles that involve inorganic matter (mechanics, engineer).
We also might want to consider that men and women might — on average — process the world in slightly different ways. Instead of trying to push women into typically “male” spaces, we should ask why they have become “male”. Is the language of coding, for instance — which favours rigid, right-brained thinking — more suited to men?
We forget that a lot of academia has been shaped by men, women having been excluded from universities and other institutions for so long. Philosophy is one of the worst offenders, in terms of only suiting one type of brain. The most complex existential questions are turned into rigid, tedious equations.
Perhaps we should take inspiration from Singapore Math, where children are taught maths in concrete, pictorial and abstract form. There’s a tendency to think that people can only learn things one way (for instance, music is taught using notation, when some like to learn aurally). Expanding the ways we communicate ideas, orthographically and otherwise, could diversify subjects in unimaginable ways.
Sadly, I fear the STEM experiment will continue for some time. Girls and women will be encouraged as much as possible into “male” fields, in the hope that this will achieve gender equality. Instead, nurses’ salaries will decline, making women invariably worse off, and there will be more Spielbergs and Zimmers, without anyone understanding why that’s the case. Either way, there’s no evidence their teachers’ encouragement made them rich.
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