Why are there fewer women in the sciences? Maybe stereotype threat can explain…

Stereotype threat is the experience of anxiety or concern when someone believes they are in a position to confirm a stereotype about their social group. For example, girls who are primed with information that women tend to do worse on math tests right before they take a math exam, will do worse on the test then girls who weren’t primed. Worry about fulfilling the stereotype can cause the person to inadvertently act in ways that confirm the stereotype, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Could this be one of the reason why there are fewer women in the STEM (science technology engineering and math) disciplines? Maybe women see less of each other at the top tiers of these fields and are reminded that women aren’t supposed to be as good at men in the sciences, thus making it harder for them to excel in the field.


A new segment on NPR I heard yesterday piqued my interest. From a research methodology standpoint, it was also really interesting because they described a new technique for more accurately capturing peoples day to day lives. Researchers at the University of Arizona had other psychology professors carry around tape recorders that were programmed to record 30 second segments of conversation throughout the participants’ day. The reseearchers were interested in how women and men academics converse with one another, and whether there would be any evidence of stereotype threat in the workplace. By listening to snip its of conversation throughout the day, Mehl and Schmader found that stereotype threat likely exists within the academic setting; when talking to male colleagues about their research, stereotype threat was activated, and the women sounded less competent then when women were talking to other women or when they were talking to anyone about non-work related topics.

Researchers Jenessa Shapiro and Amy Williams in UCLA’s Psychology Department published an article in 2011 titled “The role of stereotype threats in undermining girls’ and womens’ performance and interest in STEM fields.” This article is a great introduction to the ideas and research on stereotype threat and women in the sciences, and includes a section on possible ways in which to address the issue, titled “Implications for Intervention”.