Stereotypes and Self-AssessmentsAugust 01, 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.
How do stereotypes affect self-assessments?
Sociologist Shelley Correll explains that we use stereotypes as “cognitive crutches” in situations in which we do not know how to judge our performance. Research shows that even individuals who do not personally endorse beliefs that men are better than women at math are likely to be aware that these beliefs exist in the culture and expect that others will treat them according to these beliefs.
This expectation, or what we think “most people” believe, has been shown to influence judgments. If a girl believes that most people, especially those in her immediate environment, think boys are better than girls at math, that thought is going to affect her, even if she doesn’t believe it herself. Even if no one really believes that boys are better at math, the fact that a girl thinks they believe it is what matters. This is one reason that so many people found the 2005 comments of then-president of Harvard University Larry Summers to be so problematic. Because he spoke from such a powerful position, his remarks gave credibility to the stereotype that women may lack the aptitude to succeed in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
According to Correll, educators can reduce students’ reliance on stereotypes by making performance standards and expectations clear. The same letter or number grade on an assignment or exam might signal something different to girls than it does to boys. By using phrases like, “If you got above an 80 on this test, you are doing a great job in this class,” teachers help students understand their grades so that students don’t have to rely on stereotypes to create a standard for themselves. Thinking back to my engineering school days, I remember a number of times when the average test score was in the 50s or 60s. Getting test scores like that definitely increased my own uncertainty about whether or not engineering was for me. According to Correll, the more that teachers and professors can reduce uncertainty about students’ performance, the less students will rely on stereotypes to assess themselves.