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Stereotype Threat: Definitely for Girls, Also for Boys

Stereotype threat is real.

The discussion about stereotyping is a strange one because we often spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the people who hold the stereotypical thinking not the people who are so severely impacted by it. Part of this impulse is that we tend to want to solve a problem, which is a noble pursuit. Trying to work with victims and those afflicted by bias or discrimination is worthy work, but it does not stop the behaviors that caused the issues in the first place.

The other reason is that it is hard to measure or understand the impact, the results of prejudice and unfair categorization. Yes, we know it is dehumanizing. Bad enough. But what are the real outcomes for the victims?

Stereotype threat in regard to gender and learning, is found “in any domain that stereotypes target as being inherently masculine - such as mathematics and its related disciplines.” (see below for reference) Struggling in the subject area becomes “doubly threatening, as you begin to worry not only about failing the test, but also about fulfilling a negative stereotype targeted at your gender.” (ibid)

What is particularly fascinating about this research is that, in regard to young girls and women learning math, it is the ones with the greatest desire and potential for achievement who are the most impacted by stereotype threat. It seems that it is the females who have the most to gain who also believe they are the ones most likely not to achieve.

Is it also possible that young boys or men also suffer from stereotyping but in a different way?

In one fascinating study, researchers tested women in an all girls’ testing environments in problem solving, a particular area of test differentiation between women and men, with young women scoring lower on a consistent basis. The researchers continued their experiment over time, incrementally adding more boys to the testing environment. The women’s math scores dropped proportionally to the number of men added into their testing group. “Presumably, the presence of males reminded women that their gender identity provided a framework for interpreting their performance on the math test, and thus exposed them to the detrimental effects of stereotype threat.” (ibid, p. 177)

In contrast, women were also capable of being somewhat relieved of this threat when convinced that the test they were taking was written to be “gender free of bias”. this was in contrast to a control group which did not hear such information, performing measurably worse on the exact same exam.

Is it also possible that young boys or men also suffer from stereotyping but in a different way? We know that men occupy the upper end of the bell curve of math achievement on standardized exams. Over the past 40 years, women have been slowly but progressively closing this gap. However men consistently own the bottom end of that curve as well. And, there has been very little movement for these boys over time. They are like a shadow gender population we pretend does not exist and does not need serious intervention. Why are they so consistently struggling?

Is it possible that if boys understand math to be a “male defining” academic subject, do they also see it as something that they should be innately competent in therefore which should come naturally? Do they imagine that hard work will not make a difference because they should be inherently able to accomplish in this area?

We could call this a type of Stereotype Defeatism, driven by a static understanding of learning based on gender bias.

*Davies, P.G & Spencer, S. Women's Underperformance in qualitative domains through the lens of stereotype threat (2005). In Gallagher, A.M. Kaufman, J.C. Gender Differences in Mathematics: An Integrative Psychological Approach Cambridge University Press.

AND, for a fascinating piece of research, please read:

Inzlicht, M. Ben-Zeev, T. (2000) A threatening Intellectual environment: Why females are susceptible to experiencing problem solving deficits in the presence of males. Psychological Science, 11, 365-371.

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