Stereotype Threat and Women’s Pursuit of STEM

Written by Sara Veerman and Gwen Price

Jenny is a high school senior getting ready to apply to colleges, and she’s trying to decide which major to apply for. She found her current math class fascinating, but when she thought about her math grades and finding potential jobs, she reconsidered, thinking “I’m not as good at math as the boys in my class, and even if I complete my degree, I don’t think companies would want to hire a girl like me.” This is a common stereotype that many girls may believe growing up, and unfortunately, it has some roots in reality; people have been turned away from jobs based on their gender (Choney, 2018). 

Stereotypes present themselves everywhere, in movies, games, advertisements, classrooms, workplaces, and even within families. Unfortunately, these stereotypes have real consequences, putting people under something called “stereotype threat.” Stereotype threat is the pressure someone might feel when they think their performance may confirm negative stereotypes about a group they are a part of (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity). Women in particular seem to be in a constant battle with stereotype threat when it comes to education and work in fields related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (i.e., STEM) and the aspects contributing to success in these fields. Fortunately, there are a couple of potential solutions: having confidence in one’s own abilities and having relatable role-models to look up to (Shapiro et al., 2013). 

Gender Stereotypes Across the Life Course

These gender stereotypes begin to affect children within the first year of life (Constantinescu et al., 2018; Johnson & Moore, 2020). Parents can endorse gender stereotypes by not approving of stereotypical male behavior in daughters, such as playing with cars or playing baseball. At five months old, daughters of parents who endorse gender stereotypes already perform worse at tasks related to STEM performance (i.e. mental rotation: the ability to imagine and rotate objects in one’s head) compared to girls whose parents support these behaviors (Constantinescu et al., 2018). This may be due to the difference in the spatial nature of stereotypically masculine or feminine activities during childhood; boys’ activities were found to be primarily spatial in nature (playing with cars/trucks and Legos) whereas girls’ activities were non-spatial in nature (playing with dolls or stuffed animals) (Cherney & Voyer, 2010). Toy preferences in childhood line up with desires to pursue STEM later in college (Moè et al, 2018), in part due to the skills and abilities they help to develop. 

If parents influence whether they participate in spatial or non-spatial activities with their children, then parents’ language use while playing with the child probably differs; spatial activities likely promote more spatial language use (e.g. “above” and “to the right”). Even if children are playing with the same toy, how parents communicate while playing with their children can differ. A study found that children had higher mental rotation abilities when their mothers used more spatial language while playing with magnetic tiles (Ralph et al., 2020). Prior to Kindergarten, children presumably interact mostly with their parents, so parents’ spatial language use may have the biggest effect on mental rotation. In line with this idea, Ralph et al. found that mothers used spatial language more with sons than daughters pre-Kindergarten (2020). Around age four when children start Kindergarten, a consistent gender gap also appears (Ralph et al., 2020), a likely consequence of gender differences in parents’ spatial language.

After Kindergarten, mothers’ spatial language use with their children is no longer associated with children’s abilities in mental rotation (Ralph et al., 2020), in part because children now receive the spatial language needed to develop these skills in the classroom. However, the gender gap in mental rotation remains. Ralph and colleagues (2020) mention that at this age, children need something in addition to just spatial language to boost mental rotation abilities. Mental rotation abilities impact many different skills, including mathematics. Children learn new math techniques (i.e. multiplication and division) in elementary school better if they score higher on mental rotation tasks (Georges et al., 2019). Something as seemingly innocuous as encouraging girls to play with dolls instead of Legos can have downstream effects of putting them at a disadvantage in STEM subjects as early as elementary school. 

Spending more time with teachers in elementary school can come with its own potential difficulties. Math anxieties among female math teachers are also correlated with lower math achievement among girls, by reinforcing the gender stereotype belief that “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading” (Beilock et al., 2010). Most concerning is the fact that at the beginning of the school year, students’ math achievement was not related to teacher’s math anxiety. In other words, even if a female student was previously performing on par with their male counterparts, having a female teacher with math anxiety will likely lead to underperformance. 

Environments like these, subtly endorsing negative stereotypes (i.e., stereotype threat), can decrease how well children perform, especially if they believe the stereotype themselves (Schmader & Johns, 2003). Stereotype threat is present in families, schools, workplaces, and continues into later years of schooling. Furthermore, it is possible that female math-anxious teachers are affected by stereotype threat and likely experienced it throughout their own education. 

Gender Disparities in STEM Education

An article by Choney (2018) describes Peggy Johnson’s struggle in college as an engineering student. As an undergraduate, Johnson wondered why she struggled with mechanical engineering and was almost convinced to pursue another field by a male professor. However, with the support of her mother, she persevered and is now the vice president of business development at Microsoft. Johnson is not alone in her struggle. Many women face similar conflicts with sexism in STEM. Unfortunately, sexism is common in male-dominated fields (e.g., engineering and mathematics); it comes at no surprise that women tend to leave these fields at higher rates compared to non-male-donimated fields (e.g., accounting and marketing) because of pay and promotion inequalities (Hunt, 2016). If male domination in these fields is an issue for employee retention and interest, then it would be beneficial to examine how to change the work culture to be more inclusive and encourage women to pursue them in order to even out the gender gap. However, the gender disparities do not begin in the workplace, as mentioned before, they are apparent in education, with fewer women pursuing degrees in STEM to begin with (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). 

Compared to the early 19th century, when women could not access higher education, gender equality has greatly improved. However, glaring disproportions still persist in STEM, which has only slightly improved in recent years. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that the majority of individuals who received STEM degrees in psychology and biological/biomed sciences in 2017-2018 were women (78.9% and 62.2% respectively) (NCES, 2019). On the other hand, in mathematics, statistics, and physics this number drops to 40%, plummeting even lower for computer science and engineering at 20% (NCES, 2019). Overall, since 2008-2009 more people have received degrees in all these respective fields, but the percentage of females receiving STEM degrees have roughly stayed the same; the biggest changes are in biological/biomed sciences (59.2% to 62.2% female) and Engineering (16.5% to 20% female) while the others were within 1-2% of the current numbers (NCES, 2010, 2019). Now the question becomes, what can we do about stereotype threat to help women succeed and persist in STEM fields? 

Working Around and Reducing Stereotype Threat

Even though it seems daunting, mitigating stereotype threat is likely the best way to improve STEM outlooks for females. Several methods have been proposed to even-out the mental rotation gender gap through computer-based activities facilitating mental rotation, like Tetris (Bruce & Hawes, 2015; De Lisi & Wolford, 2002). However, even if mental rotation abilities were equal across genders, stereotype threat would still cause many women to perform worse in mental rotation (Guizzo et al., 2019) and ultimately in STEM. Stereotype threat has been found to overall reduce working memory (Schmader & Johns, 2003), which is essentially what we use to concentrate and complete any given task. If our working memory is reduced, it will be more difficult to complete the task at hand, and can result in poorer results. Therefore, in order to help women with their performances in STEM, it seems imperative to directly address stereotype threat. It is important to note, however, that stereotype threat does not only affect women. For example, they can affect men, people of different races or ethnicities, and people with disabilities. Stereotype threat takes place in any situation that hints at a stereotype associated with the people present. The interventions discussed, therefore, could possibly be generalized to address other stereotypes as well. 

Many different types of stereotype threat exist (Shapiro & Neuberg, 2007), but they can all be grouped into two categories: group-as-target (indicating one’s performance affects the image of the group) and self-as-target stereotype threat (indicating one’s performance affects the image of the individual). For example, if Jenny is worried that poor performance on a math exam will confirm that girls are not as good at math compared to boys, that would be a group-as-target stereotype threat since she is worried about girls’ image as a whole. On the other hand, if Jenny is worried that poor performance on a math exam will confirm her own abilities in math are lacking because she is a girl, that would be a self-as-target stereotype threat. Both these types of stereotype threats have different effective interventions.
For group-as-target stereotype threat, role models have been found to be effective in mitigating the effects of this threat (Shapiro et al., 2013). These role models can be individuals who are deemed as competent for whatever task is at hand; people others read about in articles, or even examples of successful individuals in a given field. Shapiro et al. mentions this may be because the role model alleviates the pressure the individual feels in terms of their performance affecting the group image as a whole. If Jenny reads about a highly accomplished female mathematician, the stereotype that boys are always better than girls at math has been proven incorrect. Even if she does not do as well on her math exam, the overall image of females is not harmed. In addition to reading about the role model’s accomplishments, it may be beneficial to describe the role model’s struggle in reaching their achievements. Students’ performance in STEM improves when they learn about potential role models’ struggles, instead of only learning about their achievements (Lin-Siegler et al., 2016). It allows individuals to better relate with the role model and can ensure them that they are not alone. However, role model interventions are not effective on self-as-target stereotype threats.

For self-as-target stereotype threat, self-affirmation of one’s own abilities can help reduce the threat’s effects (Shapiro et al., 2013). It can be as simple as identifying a trait they feel is most important to themselves, and understanding why it is important to them. The trait does not have to be related to the task or exam. Simply affirming one’s own abilities or traits alone seems to be enough to counteract the negative effect of self-as-target stereotype threat. Perhaps this happens because even if Jenny does poorly on an exam, she knows that her performance does not affect the traits in herself that she finds important. However, self-affirmations are ineffective against group-as-target stereotype threat. Perhaps to address both types of stereotype threat, it would be productive to combine the two types of interventions.

In classrooms, implementing these interventions is quite feasible. Some options include occasionally having a guest speaker presentation, or having students read diverse stories about accomplished individuals in the field, or even having quick self-affirmation worksheets before exams may be able to do wonders to help improve the performance of individuals impacted by stereotype threat. Any activity that purposely pushes back on negative stereotypes by showing either positive role models or connecting with other values students may hold can reduce stereotype threat. Over time, if interventions like these are implemented in schools, the downstream effects of these activities can impact current and future teachers who can break the math anxious cycle, employers who may be biased against women in math-focused careers, and many of the other stereotype-driven roadblocks in women’s way. Children and young adults in turn may then be less likely to endorse the negative stereotype of boys being better at math than girls, and many other similar negative stereotypes. Perhaps then the future highschool senior won’t be so quick to dismiss the idea of entering a mathematics major in college.


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