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.