Stereotype Threat: Easily Triggered and (Fairly) Easily Lifted

July 05, 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.

More than 300 studies have been published documenting the existence and effects of stereotype threat. These experiments show that stereotype threat is often the default situation in testing environments. The threat can be easily induced simply by asking students to indicate their gender before a test or having a larger ratio of men to women in a testing situation.

Research consistently finds that stereotype threat adversely affects women’s math performance and may account for as many as 20 points on the math portion of the SAT (SAT-M). While 20 points on a test with a total possible score of 800 may seem insignificant, keep in mind that in 2010 the average male score on the SAT math exam was 34 points higher than the average female score — so eliminating stereotype threat could eliminate nearly 60 percent of the gender gap on the SAT-M.

Fortunately, because stereotype threat is triggered by the test-taking environment, it can also be fairly easily alleviated by changing the environment. In Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, we recommend some steps to reduce the harmful effects of stereotype threat:

  • Encourage students to have a more flexible or growth mindset about intelligence.

    Interventions designed to help students adopt a malleable mindset about intelligence and thus reduce their vulnerability to stereotype threat positively affect their academic performance.

  • Expose girls to successful female role models in math and science.

    Exposing girls to successful female role models can help counter negative stereotypes because girls see that people like them can be successful and that stereotype threat can be managed and overcome.

  • Teach students and teachers about stereotype threat.

    Research shows that acknowledging and explicitly teaching college students about stereotype threat can result in better performance. Teachers and college faculty are best suited to do this and therefore need to know about stereotype threat themselves.

Have you ever taught students about stereotype threat? If so, how was it received? Did you get the sense that it made a difference?

By:   |   July 05, 2011


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