Big Issues

Is Sexism The Reason We Make Fun Of Arts Degrees?

These biases against soft skills are rooted in a much deeper disregard for the work and interests of women, who make up the majority of Arts students.

We all know the jokes. Arts students are destined to end up working at a fast food chain or becoming professional baristas. Studying the humanities is not difficult or worthwhile, and we would be better off studying a ‘real’ degree that’ll result in a ‘real’ job. Following your passions is a guaranteed way to end up broke, right?

Most of the time jokes about arts students pass as casual banter. But could it be that biases against soft skills are rooted in a much deeper disregard for the work and interests of women, who make up the majority of humanities students?

Disciplines like literature, psychology, sociology and languages are often economically undervalued and at worst disregarded, despite the very real contributions they make to our society and our future. 

‘Real’ Degrees And ‘Bludge’ Degrees

Females completing arts degrees

Women around the world are more educated than ever, and in Australia we study Bachelors degrees at a higher rate than men. However, trends become apparent when analysing the different areas of study by gender. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, of those studying a non-school qualification, 26 per cent of women are studying society and culture, compared to 15 per cent of men. On the flip side, only 1.4 per cent of women are studying engineering and related technologies, compared to 18 per cent of men.

Men also significantly dominate the areas of information technology and architecture and building, while women favour the health and education fields. Interestingly, the disciplines of management and commerce have about an equal percentage of men and women.

These numbers clearly show that what society deems to be ‘real’ degrees are the ones with a higher proportion of men, while what some label as ‘bludge’ degrees are much more often studied by women.

A History Of Exclusion

The implication that women who study the humanities are somehow less intelligent than men in technical degrees stings even more because women have traditionally been excluded from academia. Women were only admitted to Australian universities in the early 1880s, 30 years after men. Although women are equally represented at universities across the board today, persistent issues like the gender wage gap indicate that women have still not achieved equality when it comes to career and educational opportunities. 

Hey Dudes, Your Misogyny Is Showing

People make fun of people who study Arts because the degree is easy, not because they’re women, right? Ask yourself, do you really think learning an entire language or performing statistical analysis as part of psychology research is easy?

To take an extreme example, an anonymous post was shared on the ANU Confessions Facebook page last month. “I want to believe women are as intelligent as men, and yet they all choose arts,” it reads. “If you choose arts you choose to be a housewife, you choose to be paid less, you choose to be a less useful human, and therefore you can’t be intelligent!”

The connotation that women are dumb and choose not to make money discounts thousands of other factors that affect decisions about degrees, along with the fact that women may be paid less simply because of their gender. For example, in a recent and depressing study, the New York Times reported that as women take over a male dominated field the pay actually drops.

Soft Skills Are Essential

To state the obvious, being a ‘housewife’ or a stay-at-home mum is a completely separate decision to the choice to study Arts, and we should not disregard the value of women’s unpaid labour which literally keeps humanity alive.

When it comes to paid labour though, Arts degrees are also essential. Despite the high demand for STEM skills and the very real issue of getting more women into the technology field, non-technical skills are also becoming increasingly important as our industries transform. In the future, technology should be designed by and cater to a diverse range of people, not just Silicon Valley dude-bros. And even if the robots are coming for our jobs, they will never be able to replace creative thinkers and effective communicators with emotional intelligence. And that, my friends, is the definition of an arts student.

Molly McLaughlin is a freelance writer from country NSW. She tweets about snacks and feminism at @mollysgmcl.

(Lead image: Girls/HBO)