Monitoring what she is saying

There was a good piece on NPR last week about stereotype threat, by Shankar Vedantam.

It starts with the STEM problem: fewer women in science, engineering, technology and mathematics. It’s a bad thing. It matters.

It isn’t just that fewer women choose to go into these fields. Even when they go into these fields and are successful, women are more likely than men to quit.

And that isn’t because they get bored and decide to spend all their time thinking about shoes instead.

Audio sampling reveals that something else is going on.

When female scientists talked to other female scientists, they sounded perfectly competent. But when they talked to male colleagues, Mehl and Schmader found that they sounded less competent.

One obvious explanation was that the men were being nasty to their female colleagues and throwing them off their game. Mehl and Schmader checked the tapes.

“We don’t have any evidence that there is anything that men are saying to make this happen,” Schmader said.

But the audiotapes did provide a clue about what was going on. When the male and female scientists weren’t talking about work, the women reported feeling more engaged.

For Mehl and Schmader, this was the smoking gun that an insidious psychological phenomenon called “stereotype threat” was at work. It could potentially explain the disparity between men and women pursuing science and math careers.

Women have to worry about it, and men don’t.

For a female scientist, particularly talking to a male colleague, if she thinks it’s possible he might hold this stereotype, a piece of her mind is spent monitoring the conversation and monitoring what it is she is saying, and wondering whether or not she is saying the right thing, and wondering whether or not she is sounding competent, and wondering whether or not she is confirming the stereotype,” Schmader said.

All this worrying is distracting. It uses up brainpower. The worst part?

“By merely worrying about that more, one ends up sounding more incompetent,” Schmader said.

What to do? Change the stereotype.

Mehl and Schmader said the stereotype threat research does not imply that the gender disparity in science and math fields is all “in women’s heads.”

The problem isn’t with women, Mehl said. The problem is with the stereotype.

The study suggests the gender disparity in science and technology may be, at least in part, the result of a vicious cycle.

When women look at tech companies and math departments, they see few women. This activates the stereotype that women aren’t good at math. The stereotype, Toni Schmader said, makes it harder for women to enter those fields. To stay. To thrive.

“If people like me aren’t represented in this field, then it makes me feel like it’s a bad fit, like I don’t belong here,” she said.

Shirley Malcom, a biologist who heads education programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science calls it a chicken and egg problem: “The fact that there are maybe small numbers in some areas keeps the numbers down.”

It may sound like a Zen riddle, but Malcom, Schmader and Mehl’s solution to the problem of stereotype threat in science, technology and engineering is actually simple.

In order to boost the numbers of women who choose to go into those fields, you have to boost the number of women who are in those fields.

This is one (big) reason you can’t just do it by yourself by out-toughing everyone else. You also shouldn’t have to, but in any case, you can’t.

So bullying, jeering, blaming, othering, and mocking are not helpful either. Telling us not to be so sensitive? Also not useful. You can’t just decide to rise above it – it doesn’t work.

Now, most scientists say they don’t believe the stereotype about women and science, and argue that it won’t affect them. But the psychological studies suggest people are affected by stereotype threat regardless of whether they believe the stereotype.

The way to fix it is to fix it. Not sneer at it, not shrug it off, not tell people to suck it up – but to fix it.



  1. karmakin says

    There really needs to be a call to get old men to resign so younger women/minorities can fill those positions.

  2. Martha says

    I have mixed feelings about that article. I have no doubt that stereotype threat is real, and I suspect that anyone who put a tape recorder on me would come to much the same conclusions. I’m not convinced that the only stereotype at play is that women aren’t good at math & science. I’d love to see what would happen if they did the same study with, say, nurses. After all, even in female-dominated fields, men are promoted more quickly and make more money than women do. I suspect that some of the stereotype threat comes from the notion that work outside the home at all is “men’s work,” while work inside the home is “women’s work.” Thus women are perceived as less capable in almost any paid job.

    The other objection I had to the story was the implication that just because men did not behave nastily to the women in conversations with them does not mean that the same women have not heard those same men make disparaging comments about women in other contexts– say, a faculty meeting. Or that we haven’t heard the same man insist that qualification A is more important for hiring or promotion than is B when a man is better at A, while later insisting that B is more important when the man is better at B than at A. That kind of behavior is very common in academic science– and probably also in most academic areas. Moreover, I’ve never seen one of the good guys call one of the sexist guys on this kind of behavior. However, if I do so, sometimes the good guys approach me after the meeting and thank me for having done so.

    My point is, not only is there the threat of stereotype, but we see plenty of evidence for it in our lives as women in science. One of the aspects of Pamela Gay’s speech that I liked most was her clear description of this phenomenon. Getting more women in science will help, but if both male and female scientists are unwilling to examine and try to counteract our unconscious biases, we won’t get very far.

    Does that sound like any other community we know that prides itself on its rationality?

  3. Martha says

    @#2 karmakin: The two worst acts of harassment or bullying toward women that I know about were perpetrated by men who were in their late 30s or early 40s. Unfortunately, the old guys like to hire young guys who remind them of themselves. In every way.

  4. Cello says

    How did they arrive at the conclusion of the stereotype threat – did the women say they were worried about feeling dumb? The article doesn’t say that. This premise seems suspect to me.

  5. karmakin says

    @4. Even assuming a perfect world where there’s no harassment, one of the problems of stereotype threat is just a lack of representation, basically feeling like an outsider. At least that’s the angle I see the article coming from.

    One of the problems when it comes to this sort of thing is that we as a society have a very deeply ingrained “supply-side” view of educated workers…the more we educate the more jobs that will magically appear. It’s not exactly a zero-sum game either, but it’s closer to that than the latter. As such, in order to get women into positions of power and influence, it’s going to take getting men OUT of said positions of power of influence, be it via retirement or retraining.

  6. karmakin says

    Er..instead of latter I meant former. It’s closer to a zero-sum game than it is a supply-side model.

  7. Enkidum says

    Cello, there’s a fairly massive literature on stereotype threat, which this behaviour is at the very least extremely consistent with.

  8. Martha says


    It’s clearly the case that departments with a higher percentage of women faculty find it much easier to attract women than those without. Perhaps as a result of that, chemistry departments seem to have a bimodal distribution of women, some with 35% women and others with 15% or less.

    It’s clearly the case that having more women helps. I attribute that more to result of having a support group and to having people who will serve as mentors than anything else. I’ve always thought that too many men refuse to mentor a female junior colleague well, but maybe male discomfort with female colleagues or a lack of understanding of the special challenges that face them aren’t as much of the story as I’d thought. Maybe women also prefer female mentors because of stereotype threat.

  9. Silentbob says

    Sorry if I’m asking dumb questions, but I don’t understand the proposed solution to the problem.

    I understand that it is unfair for women to have to “suck it up” and “out-tough everyone else” in a male-dominated field.

    You say the solution is to change the stereotype. And you quote Vedantam:

    In order to boost the numbers of women who choose to go into those fields, you have to boost the number of women who are in those fields.

    Yep. Makes perfect sense to me. With more women in the field I expect the stereotype will be eroded. What I don’t get is how these women who attract other women get there in first place. I can’t see how you avoid having a pioneer generation, so to speak, who blaze the trail for everyone else despite the existing stereotype threat. And I don’t see how you avoid these hardy pioneers having to “suck it up”, “rise above it”, and tough it out.

    The way to fix it is to fix it. Not sneer at it, not shrug it off, not tell people to suck it up – but to fix it.

    For those of us in the remedial class, could you be more specific? Precisely how does one go about fixing it?

  10. Daver says

    Perhaps I should try to find the real paper; I have a few worries.

    When I talk to a woman I put my foot in my mouth more often than when I talk to a man. I speak more slowly, and stumble more. Did they do corresponding studies on how men interacted with other men vs women?

    Is it all outside activities that the women sounded less competent in, or were there specific ones? I suppose this doesn’t matter too much–stereotype bias would apply as much to those. Still, it might be interesting to look at informal talks about baseball vs informal talks about daycare.

    Did they compensate for seniority? If the university has more senior males then most female-male interactions would be junior-senior, and the perceived competency difference could be real, or could be status-related.

    The women “sounded less competent”–did they say stupid things, or were they more hesitant about saying them? “Sounded less competent” is kind of wishy-washy, and might have something to do with a perceived need to protect the fragile male ego.

    The advice at the bottom–get more women into the fields–is missing a qualifier. They need to get more competent women into the fields. Hiring someone who reinforces the stereotype isn’t going to do any good at all.

  11. Stacy says

    And I don’t see how you avoid these hardy pioneers having to “suck it up”, “rise above it”, and tough it out.

    The way to fix it is to fix it. Not sneer at it, not shrug it off, not tell people to suck it up – but to fix it.

    For those of us in the remedial class, could you be more specific? Precisely how does one go about fixing it

    It’s interesting you brought that up, Silentbob, because on an earlier post ( some of us were talking about that very thing: how pioneers in male-dominated fields have sometimes been tough, “suck it up” types who had little sympathy for feminism or women who weren’t “strong enough” to deal with obstacles.

    I think some of the pioneers do have that mindset. But it’s not an either-or prospect; a certain proportion of pioneers are going to be thick-skinned git-er-done types; other people, some among the pioneers and also those working on the sidelines or coming after them, can work to change attitudes and culture.

    I recall a quotation from Lisa Alther’s novel Kinflicks. Paraphrased, it went something like, “maybe you’re right that, left to itself, the cream always rises to the top, but a lot of perfectly good milk gets spoiled in the process.”

    Not that the non-thickskinned people aren’t “cream.” They can be potentially great in many ways, and simply be unable to breakthrough because they lack the single-mindedness (and sometimes insensitivity) of the gate-stormers.

  12. Silentbob says

    @ 14 Stacy

    Yes. I wasn’t suggesting one should have no sympathy for the “good milk”, as you put it. I’m all in favour of not spoiling the good milk. My confusion is that I don’t understand how you get the good milk in there without first encouraging the “cream” (to stretch the analogy to the breaking point 😉 ).

    Anyway, thanks. I’ll investigate the (700-odd comment 😯 ) linked thread.

  13. John says

    I read the article, and I really want to understand the best way to go about fixing the problem and getting rid of the stereotype.

    I’m one guy, but I’m in STEM field professionally, so if there is something that an individual in the field can do, and/or advocate for, I’d love to hear it.

    I’ve been reading the feminist blogs here for a bit, and have learned a whole lot, but stuff like this just got a bit more real for me. I just found out that my first child is going to be my first daughter. While I do want to allow her to be whatever she wants to be, I also want to encourage her to go into STEM fields. I hope that we can make progress in this area in the next 18 years.

  14. Silentbob says

    John is essentially asking the same question as myself, but more succinctly (thanks, John 😉 ).

    I know it’s bad form for a privileged group to ask a marginalized group to educate them. But anyway…

    I, too, am in many ways privileged. Although I lack John’s newfound vested interest, I would like to use this position to help create a more egalitarian environment. What do we know about effective policies and procedures for realising this goal? It is one thing to be aware of the existence of stereotype threat; another to know how to counteract it, or to lessen it’s impact.

  15. Tracey says

    @John: first some reassurance for you: I started out in a male-based science field in the late 1980s. Just in the span of my career, things have gotten so very, very much better for technical women than what they were. We have quite a way to go and you are right to be concerned and work toward making it better, but it’s nothing like the way it was in the 25 years ago.

  16. Godless Heathen says

    As a psych-major working in the psychology field, but who isn’t a psychologist (no PhD), I just need to say: this is why people in STEM fields should take psychology more seriously. It affects them too!

    Although I always wonder how sexism and stereotype threat has affected the choices I’ve made in my education and career. I’m very much a social science person (although psych is often considered a science and was at my college). I’ve thought about entering a science field to help bring up the number of women, but I know that none of the sciences, even the ones I’m interested in, are anywhere near as interesting to me as any of the social sciences are.

  17. Work in Progress says

    John and Silentbob: actually I think you’re already contributing to the solution, if only a teensy bit, just by reading this blog. By reading this blog, and thinking seriously about it, and becoming more aware of the issues, you’re helping. Next step: talk about it over coffee with your friends. Keep this stuff in the back of your mind while interacting with women (and men) in real life. Catch yourself making subtle, almost unconscious sexist assumptions, and mentally correct yourself. Notice when your friends seem to be making them, and gently (gently!) make them aware of what just happened.

    That’s all tiny, everyday stuff, but I think that those moments add up, and if enough of us are doing this stuff enough of the time, it will have a culture-changing affect.

    I happen to be a female math professor, so I get to have my moment of thinking “yay, just by showing up for work in the morning I’m part of the solution!” but it’s also important that I do all of the above. And sometimes I stop and realize “Crap, I just assigned more merit to the opinion of a male colleague than to the opinion of a female colleague (or myself) for no reason whatsoever!” Realizing that it’s happening is the first step to not doing it anymore.

    And to John: for your future daughter, there are lots of ways you can encourage her! I have many fond memories of my dad introducing me to interesting math concepts and problems throughout my childhood, and it’s highly likely that that’s why I chose the career I did.

  18. psocoptera says

    I ignored Ms. Daisy Cutter (to my everlasting regret) and read a lot of those comments. The level of stupid is enraging. Did you know that women have smaller brains than men and that is why they aren’t interested science? Also, stereotype threat doesn’t exist, women just find raising families more fufilling.

  19. DW says

    On the discussion about how to fix the stereotype threat, I have an idea although it’s a controversial one: Gender-specific STEM programs. In the study, the stereotype threat affected behavior more when women were interacting with men because that situation made the stereotype more salient. If women were working with only female colleagues, the stereotype wouldn’t come up and women might feel more comfortable in such environments.

    This could be a temporary fix to get more women into the field. Or gender-specific programs could target grad students or those who are starting their careers in STEM fields, with the idea that once women are more established in their career, it’s less likely for them to leave it. I can think of some drawbacks to this kind of program, but I’d rather someone with actual experience working in a STEM field to weigh in on the feasibility.

  20. John says

    @22 DW

    That could address the stereotype problem, but I don’t think that’s a very good idea on the practical side. A lot of help I’ve received (and given) through the years with jobs after school has been through friends or connections I’ve had with people in school.

    Basically, one of us gets in at an engineering firm, and then we’re able to help others still looking for work by funneling resume’s to managers to get interviews for people.

    If there were separate tracks, and there’s a discriminatory practice of hiring men over women, then the women would suffer disproportionately under that system with how I see the field working now.


  1. […] A person can have experiences that directly lead her to feel like an impostor, such as repeated remarks about her age, probing questions into her expertise despite a strong technical background, or jokes about a woman’s science capabilities. She can be reminded that she is no more than an object to some, by reading about studies showing women’s bodies are interpreted as objects but men’s as people. And a person can internalize these experiences and feel less competent, such as when she second guesses her invitation to an elite science conference, to a major blog network, or to a tenure-track position *cough not me cough*. This second-guessing based on stereotype threat can actually lead to, in the case of gendered impostor syndrome, women actually sounding less competent than men, but only when communicating with men about their sc…. […]

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