19/08/2013 11:51 BST | Updated 16/10/2013 06:12 BST

Girls' A-level Choices are Locking Them Out of Creative Industries Too

A-level results highlight the worrying trend in girls shying away from maths and sciences, increasingly favouring 'creative' subjects such as English. Girls accounted for a whopping 72% of the English A-level results this year but only 21% of physics results.

This frightens me. It frightens me not just because it means a widening of the already-prevalent divide in our workforce, with men flooding the finance and engineering job markets while women flock to 'softer' (often lower-paid) industries such as publishing and the arts, but because even within these so-called 'softer' industries, women will struggle to survive without the basic numerical and analytical reasoning fostered by scientific subjects such as maths and physics.

Creative jobs are no longer just about being 'creative'. As a novelist, I spend only a fraction of my time inventing characters and dreaming up plot twists. The rest of my working week is divided between budgeting for print-runs, drawing up publication time plans, agreeing distribution strategies for my ebooks, getting to grips with Amazon algorithms, analysing feedback from beta readers and book cover critics, segmenting audiences, planning marketing campaigns and working out how best to attract my target reader. In short, I need numerical and analytical skills to be a successful creative.


The idea that painters, writers, dancers, designers and musicians can exist on the basis of their creativity alone is misplaced and out of date. I am one of a small but growing number of creative who benefits from a scientific background. I'm happy working with numbers, I plan meticulously and I apply scientific logic to the decisions I make. My A-levels in physics, chemistry, maths and further maths got me a degree in mechanical engineering, which equipped me to think rationally and commercially throughout my creative career. Other writers and musicians do the same. One of the most successful creatives I know is the ex-IT consultant-turned-novelist J F Penn, who makes a living by thinking commercially about how to exploit her creative work.

The days of handing over your magnum opus or delivering the performance of your lifetime and believing your job is done are long gone. Even in large music companies and publishing houses, the power has shifted from the music lovers and editors to the commercial and marketing departments. I saw this first-hand when I was published by HarperCollins. For better or worse, 'creative' industries are run by business brains.

By eliminating these core skills from their toolbox at such an early age, girls are not only locking themselves out of careers in science, finance and engineering; they are diminishing their chances of reaching the top of the very industries they aspired to succeed in when they opted to go down the 'creative' path.

The answer to the downward spiral in girls doing sciences, according to Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, is to send female scientists and engineers into schools to give inspiring talks to girls, and to have men 'who have made a success out of English' to be role models for boys.

In fact, it might be more productive to send a bunch of singers, dancers, writers and actresses into schools to explain what is really involved in a modern 'creative' career and how much more successful they are as a result of their numerical and analytical skills.

We need to make sure boys and girls are making sensible choices about their career paths, but we also need to make sure they're equipped to succeed once they have made that choice - and right now, that means encouraging more girls to opt for sciences - even if they want to write a book.

Polly Courtney is author of Feral Youth, a novel set in the build-up to the summer riots of 2011, written from the perspective of a disenfranchised 15-year-old girl.