Barbie and the stereotype threat

Last week, I spoke at Dalton State College’s 2012 Dicksie Bradley Bandy Memorial Colloquium on “Old Frontiers, New Frontiers: Women in Higher Education in Georgia.”  I was asked to focus on women in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and my title was “STEM, Stereotypes, and Stromboli:  How Technology Barbie Earned an ‘A.’”  My message was about stereotypes that the general public has about women in science and technology, stereotypes that women have about themselves, and stereotypes that everyone has about the nature of work in technical fields.

One of the areas I talked about was the concept of “stereotype threat.”   Here’s the way the idea is described in the report “Why So Few?” from the American Association for the Advancement of Women:  “Stereotype threat arises in situations where a negative stereotype is relevant to evaluating performance.  For example, a female student taking a math test would experience an extra cognitive and emotional burden of worry related to the stereotype that women are not good at math.  A reference to this stereotype, however subtle, could adversely affect her test performance.  When the burden is removed, however, her performance would improve.”

Here’s how it works, based on numerous studies of the topic.  If a group of men and women of equal math abilities are given a test and, just before it starts, are told that “men generally do better on this test than women,” then guess what?  The women do less well.  If the group is told in advance that the test is gender-neutral in its outcomes, men and women do equally well.  The research data strongly support these conclusions.

Is women’s relative under-performance in these settings really about the threat of being judged by or contributing to a stereotype?  Or is it the power of the negative message that causes them to do not as well?  Is it anxiety that impairs performance?  Or are women simply not trying hard because they think they aren’t expected to?  Whatever the fundamental cause, the result is the same.  Women underperform in an environment of lowered expectations.

The corollary seems to be that women (and maybe men, too) will earn higher scores on standardized tests when they are expected to do well.  Why would we not place high expectations on everyone and look for the positive influence on their work?  If we expect Technology Barbie to do as well as her male counterparts, then the data suggest she will.

Good leaders expect the best.  The research suggests this is an excellent strategy for getting the best performance, too.  Sounds like a win-win situation to me – and an excellent way to fight stereotyping.

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