Make the Future – NT 4.2.1 Stereotype Threat

Female mason

Photo courtesy of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities

Claude Steel and Joshua Aronson define stereotype threat as “being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group” (1995, p. 797). Therefore, when a female, who is aware of the stereotype that females “can’t do math,” takes a math test and the first thing she’s asked—typical on a standardized test—is her name and gender, the stereotype is brought to mind and a host of issues may come into play. Instead of focusing on the material in front of her, she may be distracted, have narrowed attention, anxiety, self-consciousness, withdrawal of effort, or even over-effort because she fears she may confirm the stereotype that females do not perform well in math. The results can be disastrous.

Any time a person identifies as a member of a stereotyped group and cares about the outcome of a test or task, her or his performance may suffer. Research shows that stereotype threat has an impact on females as compared to males, Blacks as compared to Whites, Whites to Asians, and on students who are older, disabled, immigrants, members of the LGBT community, as well as on athletes. Its effects are seen in math, verbal ability, IQ tests, golf, reaction time, memory, language usage, negotiations, in the U.S. army and at work, and indeed, who enters the classroom and thus the workforce. It doesn’t matter what the situation is; it only matters that the person cares about the outcome!

Shelly Correll, Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, indicates that stereotype threat may influence career choice particularly in STEM and nontraditional careers. Correll designed a study, in which women were told that men had higher “contrast sensitivity” ability, but, as it is a contrived ability, all participants received the same score. However, women rated their own aptitude lower, held their performance up to higher standards, and reported lower interest in entering fields requiring skill in “contrast sensitivity” than men (Fisk, 2011).

Female student working with model train kit and teacher overlooking

Photo courtesy of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities

As the women do not believe they have the skills necessary, women are more likely to choose a career other than in a high-wage, high-demand STEM field. However, when subjects were told that women and men had the same “contrast sensitivity” ability, these disparities disappeared and there were no gender differences in ratings of aptitude, assessments of competence, or interest in fields requiring “contrast sensitivity” ability (Fisk, 2011). This simple correction—being told women and men have similar contrast sensitivity—illustrates the strength of the stereotype threat as well as the ease with which remedies can be applied.

Likewise, as cited by Koenig and Eagly, when males are tested in situations where their Social Sensitivity—or their ability to read social cues and body language—the effects of stereotype threat show up. When the stereotype that males aren’t as socially sensitive as females is brought to mind in the testing situation, the males fare poorly as compared to when the stereotype is not brought to mind. However, there is less of a reduction in the scores when the male students are told to use their intuition rather than their intellect. Just this simple reminder that males “have intuition” is enough to counter the stereotype threat.

This stereotype threat may go a long way in persuading males to shy away from occupations where a strong need to communicate with and interpret the body language of patients, clients, or students. Addressing stereotype threat is one way in which we can increase the participation rates of men in early childhood education, allied health, and social services.

The website offers concrete and simple ways to reduce stereotype threat. They include:

  • De-emphasizing threatened social identities
  • Encouraging self-affirmation
  • Emphasizing high standards with assurances of capability
  • Providing role models
  • Providing external attributions for difficulty
  • Emphasizing an incremental view of ability.

Simply indicating that in earlier testing, males and females scored equally well on this test (or in this class) can impact females’ scores. In recruiting efforts, showing pictures of successful females and employees of color in a STEM career and providing role models can both ignite interest and encourage all students to learn about a career. More extensive information can be found in Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do About it.