My Aha Moment: Was It Stereotype Threat?

Family standing in front of American Flag painting.

AAUW Postdoctoral Fellow Stacie Gregory with her son and husband.

March 08, 2016

At the time of my aha moment, I was a doctoral student in engineering education. I was also one of just a few African Americans living in a small college town with a black population of less than 1 percent. I stood out for other reasons, too: Many of the residents were part of a religious organization to which I did not belong. I was a nontraditional student. I was in my forties, married, and a mom. I attended a university where people of color were noticeably absent. My race, age, and religious affiliation classified me as an outsider — a label I had already become familiar with as an African American female engineer.

As a trained engineer, I understood theoretical and scientific facts, and I was well versed in quantitative data analysis. However, I had little scholarly comprehension of the historical, sociological, and cultural issues that can hinder students’ academic success. Fortunately, while in graduate school, I was assigned to write a research paper about a relevant and timely social issue in education. I chose the absence of women in engineering because I was interested in researching how to diversify the profession. After all, the lack of diversity in engineering is detrimental to our technological advancement, economic security, and competitiveness as a country. W. A. Wulf, former president of the National Academy of Engineering, said it best: “Sans diversity, we limit the set of life experiences that are applied, and as a result, we pay an opportunity cost — a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, in processes not invented.”

Uncovering the Reality of Stereotype Threat

While conducting research for my paper, I learned about stereotype threat for the first time. Stereotype threat is described as “the immediate situational threat that derives from the broad dissemination of negative stereotypes about one’s group; the threat of possibly being judged and treated stereotypically, or of possibly self-fulfilling such a stereotype.” Once I learned about this social phenomenon, I immersed myself in stereotype threat literature. I wondered if stereotype threat contributed to the opportunity cost Wulf described. Could stereotype threat explain why women are not persisting in engineering?

The more I learned, the more I was convinced that it had influenced my own life: In 1998, I left graduate school without earning the doctorate in materials science and engineering I had been seeking. Leaving the doctoral program was a personal decision that had left me depressed and defeated. With a newfound understanding of stereotype threat, I wondered if my earlier departure from graduate school was really a personal choice. According to Nilanjana Dasgupta, social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, “What feels like a free choice to pursue one life path or ‘possible self’ over another is often constrained by subtle cues in achievement environments that signal who naturally belongs there and is most likely to succeed and who else is a dubious fit.”

Regardless of why I left graduate school, I felt like an absolute failure. I gave up on myself. I regrettably succumbed to the pressures of trying to prove my self-worth in the white, male-dominated engineering field. I was exhausted from trying to dispel negative stereotypes about my intellectual competence. Although I worked absurdly long hours — including early mornings, late nights, weekends, and holidays — I thought I was not dedicating enough time to my studies. Despite meticulously preparing a 150-page research proposal and successfully passing rigorous written and oral exams, I frequently doubted my intellectual capabilities. And while I enjoyed the engineering design challenges I encountered in the laboratory, I continuously questioned my desire to be an engineer.

Coming Face-to-Face with Stereotype Threat

When I recognized that stereotype threat may have played a major role in my premature departure from graduate school, I found peace in realizing that I’d been defeated in a game I never even knew I was playing. I lost a war that I didn’t know I was fighting. However, I am now armed with a new awareness about what may have affected my decision to leave graduate school early, and I’m empowered to assist others who may be feeling how I felt.

Many years have passed since I failed at my first attempt at earning a doctorate in engineering. Thanks to my strong faith and a supportive husband, I had the courage to give it another try. In 2013, I returned to graduate school and on May 1, 2015, I was awarded a doctorate in engineering education. As an old gospel song says, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.” My path has been discouraging and, at many times, painful. However, it ultimately helped me become more resilient. It groomed me to openly and authentically share my story. My story is my truth, and it sets the foundation for everything else that has happened in my life. I embrace my story and who I am meant to be. I can honestly say that “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”

This post was written by AAUW Postdoctoral Fellow Stacie Gregory.


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