Under-Represented Groups and Stereotype Threat

There has been a lot of excellent discussion lately about the under-representation of certain groups in philosophy, and what can be done about it.  (This post gives links to some of it.)  One force which is very likely to play a role in this (both as partial cause and effect) is Stereotype Threat. Stereotype Threat is a very well-confirmed phenomenon, in which people from groups stereotypically expected to perform badly on a task perform in stereotype-confirming ways if they are reminded of their group membership.  (See Stoat’s post here.) For example, women asked to indicate their sex at the beginning of a math exam do worse on the exam than women not asked to do this.  It’s not hard to see how this could have effects in philosophy.  Women are stereotypically bad at e.g. logic, so being reminded of their sex could worsen their logic performance.  Surely, you may argue, nobody asks women to indicate their sex at the top of a logic exam.  Absolutely right, but there’s more than one way to be reminded of one’s sex, and being one of very few women in a room certainly has that effect.  (As does being in a room full of people who go to men-only events together, hearing the phrase ‘lady academic’, being told that one is ‘an affirmative action hire’, to cite anecdotes from recent comments. For more on the way this works, see a post from JJ.)  I use women as my example, but there are similar destructive stereotypes about other groups. It’s heartening to read, then, at Mixing Memory, that there are some very easy and effective ways to combat Stereotype Threat.  Here’s one example:

Good et al. had advanced college calculus students take a practice exam that they were told would test their readiness for the upcoming real exam, and would also get them extra credit based on their score. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: the reduced-threat condition, in which they were told that the exam had been thoroughly tested, and had shown no gender differences, and the control condition, in which gender wasn’t mentioned (gender stereotypes in math are pervasive, so it’s likely simply taking a test will activate them). Male participants performed equally well in both conditions, while female participants performed significantly worse in the control condition than in the reduced-threat condition. In fact, while female participants in the control condition performed worse than male participants, the female participants in the reduced-threat condition performed better than all of the male participants.    

It would be great if we could come up with easy ways, appropriate for teaching philosophy, to reduce stereotype threat. I’d love to hear any ideas that folks have. One potential problem that occurs to me is that I wouldn’t want to just focus on sex/gender stereotypes. But it’s hard to imagine a non-clunky way to combat all the many stereotypes that might affect our students. Suggestions?  One thing I find myself wondering is whether teaching people about stereotype threat could help make them less susceptible to it.  Has this been tried?

4 thoughts on “Under-Represented Groups and Stereotype Threat

  1. I did an extremely quick search on google with [“stereotype threat” teaching]. There seems to be some evidence that teaching students about their vulnerability to stereotype threat can help.

    I think there’s a worry about dealing with this sort of thing in the profession. It is my impression that when we say something like “It may help perpectuate a kind of exclusion that….” what the guys too often hear is “whine! Whine! whine!”

  2. I’ve been thinking a bit about how to introduce it. One might, for example, discuss stereotype threat in a discussion of epistemology, as an example of the way that reasoning can be influenced by surprising things. Hard to see how that would look like whining to anyone, and yet it would make people aware of it.

  3. Surely, you may argue, nobody asks women to indicate their sex at the top of a logic exam.

    Actually, I have taken standardized tests where they ask you to indicate sex. I also feel like it was on the SAT, but I could be wrong about that. But I can see the tests in my head right now. Green paper, tiny little white bubbles with numbers in them, bubbles at the top for “male” and “female.”

    But, again, my most vivid memories of this are from when I was pretty young. Maybe they’ve since stopped?

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