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Women are still underrepresented in leadership roles. One major cause is unfavourable gender norms. Is it possible that art in which these norms are cast into doubt will reduce prejudice against female leadership? Psychologist Eftychia Stamkou has received a Veni grant to research this question.

Portrait picture of Eftychia Stamkou
Eftychia Stamkou: We never talk about the implications of how art affects our behaviour, and that’s actually very strange because art plays such an important role in all our lives

Just as in real life, cinema and television fare poorly when it comes to portraying women in leadership positions. Compared to men, women are depicted three times less often than men in leadership roles in films, television series, etc. Women in leadership roles are often in the minority in other art forms, too. This fact gave Stamkou the idea for her research.

When aiming to bring about social changes, such as reconsidering gender norms, there are many different approaches to take. How logical is it to look at the potential of art?

‘We are constantly surrounded by art, and here I’m not only talking about higher forms of art such as things you see in a museum, but also television, films, books, dance performances, and so on. Ever since Plato we’ve been discussing how art affects people, but then only within art itself: what do we feel, what colours appeal to us, why do we like one music genre more than another? But we never talk about the implications of how art affects our behaviour, and that’s actually very strange given that art plays such an important role in all our lives. So it’s almost inevitable that our behaviour is influenced by this.’

What’s unique about your research?

‘Apart from the fact that the question “How does art affect our behaviour?” has never been answered in a research project, the method is unique as well. That’s because I’m using art experiments: together with artists I’m working on artworks in which, for instance, in one instance the woman appears in the leadership role and in another she doesn’t – such as a conventional and unconventional tango choreography.’

How do you then measure the effects of art on our behaviour and thinking?

‘It’s quite difficult to measure bias: people tend to hide their prejudices by saying something different to what they actually think. So during the viewing of the art we’re going to measure implicit responses in test persons, that is to say the responses which they themselves can’t influence. Thinks like sweating, breathing and heart rate. Afterwards we have the test persons answer some questions and carry out association tasks, where for instance they need to link up words such as woman and leadership. In order to reveal the long-term effects of art on human behaviour we measure the responses at various moments during this time period.’

You’ve set the bar fairly high in your experiment: you expect that people’s attitudes can already change after viewing an artwork just once.

‘That’s true – I’ll be examining whether this really is the case. And if it isn’t, then we’ll still have gained information that can serve as basis for a follow-up study.’

Stamkou will be commencing her research project in spring/summer 2021, and it will then run for four years.