Stereotype Threat and Its Effect on Women in STEM

Today, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields, are largely dominated by men. Though there are many claims as to why more men than women pursue jobs in these fields, one important claim is that there is a negative stereotype that men are smarter and will be more successful in these subjects than women, which discourages women and can lower their performance in these areas.

One crucial study that supports this claim was carried out by Steven J. Spencer and Claude M. Steele in an attempt to test how women’s awareness of negative stereotypes, or stereotype threat, affected their performance on a math test. The study showed that when men and women participants were told of gender differences (men testing higher than women in the past), women performed poorly in comparison to men. However, when the participants were not told of gender differences, men and women performed equally well.[1] Another study by Toni Schmader and Matthias Mehl showed that when female scientists talked to female colleagues, they sounded completely competent, but when they talked to male colleagues, their speech sounded uncertain. Schmader and Matthias suggest that women sounded more uncertain when talking to male colleagues because they were aware of the stereotype threat and were worried about sounding incompetent and confirming this stereotype.[2] Finally, a study carried out by Anne Maass, Claudio D’Ettole, and Mara Cadinu, tested the performance of females in two online chess matches. Although this study did not test performance in a STEM related subject, it showed that when female players were unaware of their opponent’s sex, they performed equally well with males, but when the females knew their opponent was male, their performances weakened.[3]

I think this claim is completely valid and has strong evidence supporting it. In high school, my calculus class had mostly male students and was taught by a male teacher. I can think of times when I felt I was not as smart as some of the boys in my class and thinking that it was just because they were more mathematically gifted than me. From having this experience and reading these studies, I think it is important that we encourage an open mindset in STEM classes and that we encourage girls from a young age to explore their interests in STEM fields.

[1] Spencer, Steven J., Claude M. Steele, and Diane M. Quinn. “Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35.1 (1999): 4-28. Web. 16 Sept. 2014

[2] Vedantam, Shankar. “How Stereotypes Can Drive Women To Quit Science.” NPR. NPR, 12 July 2012. Web. 16 Sept. 2014

[3] Maass, Anne, Claudio D’ettole, and Mara Cadinu. “Checkmate? The Role of Gender Stereotypes in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport.” European Journal of Social Psychology 38.2 (2008): 231-45. Web. 17 Sept. 2014.

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