Stereotype Threat, Revisited

June 29, 2011

Each month this year, AAUW is teaming up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, to put together an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.

The second research finding described in Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics is about stereotype threat. This topic was one of the first covered by Laura Hoopes in this forum in March of last year, and I’d like to talk a bit more about it.

In the mid-1990s, social psychologist Joshua Aronson and his colleagues Claude Steele and Steven Spencer first identified and described the phenomenon of stereotype threat, which is the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of doing something that would confirm that stereotype.

Stereotype threat can be felt by an individual both psychologically and physiologically and results in impaired performance. For example, J. Blascovich et al. (2001) found that African Americans taking an intelligence test under stereotype threat had higher blood pressure levels than white test-takers did. No difference in blood pressure levels of African Americans and whites occurred in the nonthreat situation. Steele and Aronson (1995) found that stereotyped individuals often reread items more often than nonthreatened participants did and worked slower with less accuracy.

In one of the earliest experiments looking specifically at women, Spencer et al. (1999) recruited 30 female and 24 male first-year University of Michigan psychology students with strong math backgrounds and similar math abilities. The students were divided into two groups, and the researchers administered a test using items from the math section of the GRE. One group was told that men performed better than women on the test (the threat condition), and the other group was told that there were no gender differences in test performance (the nonthreat condition). The researchers found that women performed significantly worse than men in the threat situation and that the gender difference almost disappeared in the nonthreat condition.

Aronson and his colleagues conducted another experiment at a large public university in the southwest to investigate stereotype threat among students in a high-level calculus course that is a pipeline to future careers in science. The results showed no difference in performance between female and male STEM majors when they were told that a difficult math test was a diagnosis of their ability (threat condition); however, when the threat was removed by telling the students that women and men performed equally well on the test, the women performed significantly better than the men.

Have you observed the effects of stereotype threat in your teaching or in your own life? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

By:   |   June 29, 2011

2 Comments

  1. [...] should aspire to, often driven by what is “appropriate” for their sex. Gender stereotypes only further hinder girls from pursuing STEM fields and lower the confidence they need to enter into a male-dominated [...]

  2. […] we do think ads addressing and challenging stereotypes are empowering. To recognize and fight off stereotype threat, the risk of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, a woman leader needs […]

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