Stereotypes Can Be Threatening

March 03, 2016

Stereotyping happens so often in our society that it may seem ordinary, but it is far from harmless. People may feel especially threatened by stereotypes about their own social groups, a phenomenon that social psychologists call stereotype threat. Many negative consequences are associated with stereotype threat, ranging from poor performance to decreased retention in certain professions.

You don’t have to believe a stereotype to experience stereotype threat and its negative effects. In fact, you may be susceptible to stereotype threat simply by

  • Being aware of the stereotype
  • Identifying with the group that is stereotyped
  • Caring about succeeding in the domain in which the stereotype applies

People who care the most about succeeding in a domain may experience the highest levels of stereotype threat. It can be particularly damaging to a person who identifies with a field that has acutely salient negative stereotypes about that person’s group.

Stereotype Threat and Women in STEM

Anyone who listens to, reads, or watches the news is familiar with the buzz about the importance of recruiting and retaining girls and women in STEM degree programs, particularly engineering and computer science. Women are grossly underrepresented in these disciplines, and research shows that inadequate preparation at the K–12 level, a lack of role models, and stereotype threat may all be culprits.

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Robust gender-math stereotypes in U.S. culture make stereotype threat an important phenomenon in understanding women’s underrepresentation in STEM degree programs. Female students with high mathematics aptitudes who are also concerned about succeeding in these disciplines are especially susceptible to stereotype threat. Can this predisposition to stereotype threat explain the high attrition rate of female students in engineering and computing? Is stereotype threat taking emotional and mental tolls on female engineers, leading them to abandon the profession in pursuit of careers that do not diminish their dignity?

Lessening the Negative Impact of Stereotype Threat

These questions can’t be answered definitively, but policy makers should support programs that help researchers understand how stereotype threat affects people in real-world settings. Although researchers have studied stereotype threat extensively in laboratories, very little research has been conducted in real-world settings. Educators, parents, and female students should be aware of stereotype threat and learn strategies to reduce its negative impact. Attacking this complicated social phenomenon requires a commitment to learning how to help create more innovators and strengthen innovation.

Why We Should Care

For decades, the United States has been a world leader in generating knowledge and developing innovative products and services. Establishing and maintaining a creative, diverse workforce is imperative for a prospering economy, robust health and human services, and national security. At a time when novel technologies quickly become obsolete, competition is immediately global, and innovative ideas are instantaneously packaged into profitable products, we must tap into the creative potential of all citizens — and that includes all women and girls.

This post was written by AAUW Postdoctoral Fellow Stacie Gregory.


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