Talking about stereotype threat

The undergraduate philosophy classes I teach are often in technical, male-dominated sub-disciplines (metaphysics, philosophy of language, logic, etc). More men than women take these classes, and the male students usually outperform the female students — at least if we’re judging performance based on grade distribution — even though all the grading is done anonymously, as far as possible. The male students also tend to be much more vocal in class discussion.

There’s a lot not to like about this, obviously. In an attempt to be proactive, I’ve started talking about gender and stereotype threat in these classes. Basically, I introduce the concept of stereotype threat, and explain to the students ways it might affect them. I talk through some of the cool experiments (the math test study, the chess player study, etc) involving gender and stereotype threat. Then I put up a bunch of information (including links to these and more studies, and links to further reading) on the course webpage. But I’m worried that, at least for some of my students, this effort may have backfired.

I’m reasonably confident that I managed to communicate the information clearly, because several of the *men* in theses classes have responded very enthusiastically — thanking me for bringing up the issue, wanting to talk about the cases further, etc — and they all seem to have understood what I was saying without any trouble. The most confident and successful female students in the class have responded similarly. What I’m worried about are the less confident female students — precisely those that are perhaps most vulnerable to stereotype threat in these kinds of classes. On several different occasions, some of these students have come to my office to talk over an exam or a paper, and ended up saying something like “I’m so bad at this — it’s like you were saying in class, how women just aren’t as good at making arguments.”

No! Not what I said! At all. But I tried to talk about stereotype threat in a context where the threat levels were (for at least some students) pretty high. So I said something like “You’ve probably been told at some point in your life that women are emotional and men are rational, or that men are better at making logical arguments. But that’s just not true. . .” [Proceed with discussion of stereotype threat.] But what some of my most vulnerable students heard was “Men are better at making logical arguments.”

Does anybody have thoughts about how to avoid this? That is, does anybody have ideas about how to talk about stereotype threat in a context where the threat levels are running pretty high without it backfiring on your most at-risk students?

24 thoughts on “Talking about stereotype threat

  1. Saying “X is not true” tends to reinforce X. The best thing to do is to say the statement you want to reinforce, not try to debunk false statements (at least to begin with).

    I’d start with “Women are just as good as men at making logical arguments, despite what you may have been told.”

    Once you’ve got that basic idea through (and it will probably need to be repeated two or three times, phrased in different ways each time), you can then start to explain where the opposite idea comes from. But if you lead with the incorrect idea then people pick it up incorrectly.

  2. Is there any evidence to suggest that saying ‘X is not true’ reinforces X?

    When I teach about the gambler’s fallacy, I start off with a lot of examples of the fallacy in action. Then I say something like “But wait, there’s a problem with this reasoning”. (Twist!) So I’ve gotten the students’ attention with things that seem really familiar, and I’ve made the issue salient. But then I show them what the problem is (once I’ve gotten them to care). This seems to work really well for something like the gambler’s fallacy.

    For stereotype threat, I started off by getting a show of hands. So, e.g., “How many people have been told that women are rational and men are emotional?”, etc. We talk about what the students have been told, get some examples, and then use these as a springboard for talking about stereotype threat.

    I guess I’m not sure that this is a bad idea. My thought was that the students need to realize that the stereotypes in question are pervasive and things they’ve encountered frequently to really see the full import of stereotype threat.

  3. You might also worry about the phenomenon of women reacting to hard material by backing off. Though the whole point of bringing it up is to try to counteract these false views about the ability of women, there’s a risk that you’ll reinforce some hidden opinions they have of themselves and the material.

    Maybe try something like this instead:

  4. This is a really intriguing issue. The studies I recall reading about (from this blog) in which stereotype threat has been ameliorated (in the case of women and ethnic minorities) don’t, if I remember correctly, involve direct identification the phenomenon. (Remind me a bit of this variety of backfire. It would be interesting to hear what psychologists in this area of research have to say.

  5. I’m not sure the debunking of stereotype threat works much like the debunking of fallacies, particularly the gambler’s fallacy. Fallacies, it seems to me, are most often made in the heat of the moment or in the service of a larger project. They aren’t made under conditions of heavy or considered deliberation, where the fallacious argument is what is being deliberated upon.

    When a student sees the gambler’s fallacy pulled out of context and closely studied on its own, I think it’s pretty easy for them to see it for a fallacy. But stereotype threat is tougher because lots and lots of people actually believe things like “women aren’t as good at constructing logical arguments” or “girls aren’t as good at math as boys”. It’s not just that they throw those statements out there, but on closer scrutiny, folks actually believe it. Surely (hopefully?) no one believes that the gambler’s fallacy works on careful questioning.

  6. When I audited a mind class last year, I noticed that the male bias in the classroom was more subtle than “women do this and men do that.” I can’t speak highly enough of the prof,

    (those of you who are in the know can check out my email address and cross reference against the movers and shakers at my school–this prof is well known in his field and a very good teacher)

    but some of the male students were the worst kind of privileged snotbags I’ve ever seen. I usually sit front and centre because of my Marty Feldman eyes, and I will occasionally ask questions about the standard lines of thought in discussions about perception. I find the fuzzy boundaries of ‘normal’ perception and belief quite fascinating. Unfortunately, the front rows in classes like this are often taken up by privileged young white guys who behave as if I sit where I sit because I’m looking for a guy or something. The young man in my mind class made this noise that sounded something like PFFT every time I got within 10ft of him, or asked any question of the prof, dumb, smart or indifferent. He actually went so far as to get this cute little brunette to sit beside him for the 3rd through 5th weeks of the course! And yet he had no problem with the wheelchairbound young man who sat on the other side of him. (I didn’t either. Wheelz was sharp as a tack. I’m just saying the bias seems to be sexist, not ableist). This coming from a dood who claims to have formal logic courses up the wazoo!

    I can see how younger women with less real world experience, and less knowledge of body language can misread this kind of subtle snub as an attack on their competence. I’m still not 100% certain that the boy actually thought I was checking him out and using the girl as some kind of adolescent warning signal. I mean, his presumption is rather absurd, considering the fact that I’m nearly twice his age. But the gender politic at my school is pretty messed up in that respect. “Don’t talk to him/her unless you want to get with him/her” seems to be the ICKY rule of thumb where I am. I don’t know how these young women cope with that.

    Had I actually been paying for the course, I would have been a good deal more vocal about this boy’s behaviour. I am still thinking about sending an email to my prof about him. Unfortunately, Gepetto-like soul that Dr. Mind seems to be, he’s completely oblivious to this boy’s crass body language and vocalizations. This prof is also mentor to the student prof who I spent so much time ranting about last year. And that student prof rubs elbows with a bunch of snooty doodz who are just like him. And so goes the neverending Rich White Guy Club.

    This is why I’m sporting a budding preference for the “Ethics Ghetto”.

    I don’t know if this helps, because I’m just an interdisciplinary undergrad with enough problems to thoroughly undermine my own credibility, but homelessness topped up with years of nearly finished programs of study, and a few audits have given me better than average social skills (at least when I’m not dealing with rich white conservative males) Try this, or don’t. You’re the professional, here. :-)

    My favourite anthro prof used to teach us the jargon of the discipline alongside the popular expressions for the subject matter. Then she would joke about how academics got paid according to the penny press principle, and that’s why they make up so many obnoxiously long words. Then she went on to dissect (Sometimes deconstruct–or rearrange) the popular terms, to show why it’s worthwhile to use the jargon. In so doing, she brought the scary snooty smart people down to size, while simultaneously building up the less confident students in her class (like many anthro people, she was a huge fan of Foucault). Never once did she even have to say “some people believe that women aren’t so great at such&such”, which is all too easy for a stressed out student to interpret as “When great thinkers say that women aren’t so great at such and such, they’re absolutely right. They think because they’re great and they’re great because they think. And you lowly frosh can’t hold a candle to them.”

    She also had some kickass memory tricks. All of her clothes were an identical cut in mix&match colours. So on days when she taught a specific topic, she’d wear the peach sweater with the brown slacks, and walk in a specific pattern. On days when she taught a different topic, she’d wear the red sweater with the black slacks and walk in a different pattern. Then, already having the social science tools to measure the #1 area of difficulty for each class, she’d wear the outfit for that topic, and walk the appropriate walk for the appropriate test for each class, each semester.

  7. Another really great message I took away from this anthro prof, pertaining to Annaleigh’s linked article: My instincts were right! I was never the thing in this elementary/highschool/postsecondary teacher/student exchange that was flawed! The SYSTEM was flawed.

  8. I have a semi-related anecdote that may or may not be helpful. I play video games on xbox live, and I’ve noticed that when playing online, where you can communicate with the other players (usually male), I perform slightly worse than normal. When I play with my significant other (male, but who doesn’t use the offensive language that you usually hear from other players on xbox live) I perform slightly better. When I play team games, if there are other females on the team with me, I tend to play *much* better than if there are none. It seems that, generally, the more reminders I face that xbox live is “male space” the worse I perform, and the more reminders I face that I am not the only female in that space, the better I perform. I am very conscious of the problem of stereotype threat, but my suspicion that this is what affects my performance doesn’t help me address it’s effects. I wonder if rather than discussing the problem, it would be better to find more ways to use work by female philosophers, use female pronouns rather than male in examples, etc. Of course, you might already be doing these things.

  9. We discussed a very related issue on this blog some while ago. We were talking about political rumors. The very standard advice is that repeating rumors tends to reinforce them, as does directly denying them. “Not” and other negatives tend to drop out, so though we hear “women are not stupid” we end up with an association between “women’ and “stupid.”

    There’s an interesting article that was referred to. What’s at the bottom of this is that in fact our minds are biased in our uptake and processing for information. The article cites some of the academic research; it is here:

  10. Hi JJ,

    Thanks for the link. But I’d think there’s a big difference between giving a list of statements, some labeled ‘true’ and some labeled ‘false’ (as per the experiment referenced in the article) versus discussing the falsity of a particular set of statements in depth. So I’m not sure that conclusions from the former case can automatically be applied to the latter.

    When talking about this stuff, I didn’t just say, e.g., “It’s not the case that men are more rational than women” or write “Men are more rational than women” up on the board, point to it, and say “That’s false”. We talked, in some depth and at length, about *why* statements like these are false.

    Now maybe that’s still misguided, or likely to lead to error. But it would be disappointing, to say the least, if there were certain things we just couldn’t talk about for fear of students accidentally getting the wrong idea. What I’m hoping is that there’s some way we can constructively talk about the issue while avoiding the potential pitfalls of talking about it.

    This was all prompted by having lots of female students talk to me in my office hours about their discomfort with the material, or their hesitancy to make arguments in their essays (“that just seems rude” is what one of them said). When I was an undergraduate, the professor in my disability studies class talked about stereotype threat in relation disabled people (quite a few of us in the class had disabilities), and that talk was unbelievably helpful for me. So I thought I’d try something similar for gender, since my basic efforts to provide an inclusive syllabus, teaching environment, etc, didn’t seem like they were helping enough.

    And now I find myself. . .bemused.

  11. @magicalersatz, I forgot to mention, the hint dropping on my anthro prof’s part wasn’t her entire debunking scheme. It was just her way of grooming us for the big affront to whatever religious biases (specifically the type that lead to anthropocentrism, androcentrism, speciesism, homophobia, racism and ableism) would be upset when she stuck it to Aquinas and the boys and their ‘Chain of Being’ doctrines. And stick it to them she did, eventually. But not before she’d loosened us up.

    Compare that to my sadly and forgivably defensive anthro TA in university. She interpreted my every statement pertaining to power structures as one carrying the reverse ought to the one I’d intended. “Men don’t do housework [but dingit they should!!]” became “Men don’t do housework [and rightly so.]” The poor thing was all red in the face over some ideological dispute that I was NOT even having with her :-( I dropped the course because I couldn’t deal with that stress either.

    Also, I find some discussions of certain types of prejudice to be extremely upsetting. Here I am in this amazing class with this amazing prof who ACTUALLY KNOWS HOW IT IS!! And then I have to sneak into some crash spot on campus and get told off by campus cops, or sleep in my storage locker. For all the wonderful ideas and theoretical models, reality still sux and nothing ever changes. Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech makes me cry like a little girl every time I hear it. Maybe confronting these issues too quickly and too directly is causing similar upheavals in students who are too close to the issues you’re discussing?

  12. I don’t think the message should be that one can’t talk about it, but that one has to be careful. I ran across this issue when I was involved in university faculty governance; universities are great places for rumors. So we were going to consider what to do; should we hold meetings, issue statements, or what? The research is pretty definite; avoid repeating the rumors, even if it is to deny them.

    In addition, with stereothreat you are dealing with an extremely hard problem; getting from a change in what they hear to a change in beliefs, feeling and behavior. Obviously, human beings can be extremely good on acting on information that they get. However, in complex areas where there are all sorts of deeply held issues surrounding one’s self-understanding, getting from input to a changed human being might be really hard. I personally think it is very often almost impossible to change people’s minds withought dedicating hours and hours to it over weeks and weeks. There’s been a lot of research on this, since the mid-70’s, I think, under the topic of “the persistance of belief”.

    Anyway, I just had an interesting web experience. One of the recent and very pernicious false beliefs spread about is the one linking vaccines and immunization. So I wondered how official bodies were dealing with this, given the theory that one shouldn’t go around saying “Vaccines will not cause autism.” The first entry in Goodle for “autism vaccines” took me to the center for disease control’s page on vaccination safelty; you’re told how much they care about vaccination safety, do all sorts of studies and tests, etc, etc,. Then you go to another page where you are told about how committed the CDC is, etc, etc. Then you go to a third page where finally you get:

    As the country’s leading public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is committed to protecting the health of all Americans–including infants, children, and adolescents. CDC shares with parents and many others great concern about the number of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). We are committed to understanding what causes autism, how it can be prevented, and how it can be recognized and treated as early as possible.

    Recent estimates from CDC’s Autism Developmental Disabilities Monitoring network found that about 1 in 150 children have ASD. This estimate is higher than estimates from the early 1990s. Some people believe increased exposure to thimerosal (from the addition of important new vaccines recommended for children) explains the higher prevalence in recent years. However, evidence from several studies examining trends in vaccine use and changes in autism frequency does not support such an association. Furthermore, a scientific review by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that “the evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines an autism.”CDC supports the IOM conclusion.

    CDC recognizes that autism is an urgent health concern and supports comprehensive research as our best hope for understanding the causes of autism and other developmental disorders. Through collaborations with partners in government, research centers, and the public, CDC is focusing on three areas–

    1.Understanding the frequency and trends of autism spectrum disorders.
    2.Advancing research in the search for causes and effective treatments.
    3.Improving early detection and diagnosis so affected children are treated as soon as possible

    The denial is really buried in all sorts of positive indications of competence, caring, etc.

  13. BTW, the CDC link is here:

    If I were to discuss the issue in class, I might try it with totally different topics and then move onto the extent to which girl’s maths scores have gone up. Maybe then ask the students to think why they were held down. Perhaps try to get in the idea that hearing over and over that one can’t do something affects performance.

    My favorite stereothreat example has to do with white guys and basketball jumping. Apparently, reminding white guys before a basketball game about race can degrade their performance.

  14. Any suggestions/comments on whether male teachers should approach discussing stereotype threat in undergraduate classes differently than female teachers? I have to be honest to being very nervous about bringing it up, but convinced that (if properly brought up), it would be beneficial. I’m also not sure why I am hesitant/nervous.

  15. Mm, could it be that you’re concerned that discussing existing prejudices without framing them properly might lead students to believe that you share the prejudices of the privileged group you’re discussing? I threw off an American Studies prof with all my scowling and hissing at discussions about a certain radical rightwing group of ideologues. (Yeah–TEABAGGERS!!) He was very calm, and smiled a little when he responded flatly: “That is NOT my view.” He also spent a great deal of classtime cracking brilliant jokes about what causes some rich white guys to think they’re so special. He loved to diss Mr. self-proclaimed Cracker, Ehminem.

    My ethics&political philosophy prof stated similar disclaimers when he taught, knowing that he was speaking to a room with mixed views. He was well versed in feminist theory and knew more about those crazy french people–I mean those continentals ;-) than anybody outside of the arty disciplines. Most of the philosophy profs I’ve questioned about Sartre and the rest claim total ignorance. This ethics prof stated his Kantian/Rawlsian slant before his lectures on Ethical Egoism, and pointed out that he found it to be the most difficult perspective to teach. He also pointed out that he too came from humble, tax free beginnings. But thanks to our great student loans programs, he now pays a substantial figure in tax money every year, and he’s proud to pass it on to the next struggling student. There’s nothing more gratifying than watching a libertarian student who believes that everybody with views unlike his own is a communist hellbent on destroying democracy do a sudden about-face. This prof’s artful, yet sincere self-disclosure was just brilliant, imo.

    You’ll need to top this up with your own expertise, obviously. Try softening your students up with a little something from Chris Rock in Down To Earth, or Ellen Barkin in Switch. And explain to them that there are some things you’ll never understand about the experiences of some marginalized groups. NEVER. But we’re all here to understand as much as we can, warts, privileged white guy angst and all.

  16. Real-world examples are often great teaching tools. I think this is a case in which anecdotal counterexamples are going to be much more effective. In fact, I don’t know that I would start by talking about stereotype threat at all.

    Here’s an idea off the top of my head:
    Tell a few stories of students that have excelled in your classes, both male and female, then ask the class to guess the gender of the students described. This will allow you first to see if and to what extent the class already holds stereotype beliefs without influencing them by talking about the threat first. Who knows, they might guess all of them to be female. Then tell them the gender of the students you talked about and hear their reactions. Only then would I introduce the idea of stereotype threat.

  17. Since Andrew is not around to respond to the question asked of him, there is plenty of evidence that saying ~p tends to lead people to believe that ~p. Gilbert’s work is the place to start: acceptance of claims is the cognitive default, so under load subjects process ~p as ‘p’. Even when load is absent, the negation and the claim are stored separably and tend to dissociate over time, so what tends to be recalled is ‘p’. More pertinently here, you can get so called ironic effects by calling attention to a prejudice: an activated prejudice is an activated prejudice, no matter how activated. Keith Payne showed that asking subjects to avoid racial bias tends to lead to increase in bias.

    So how do you avoid stereotype threat? The only reliable method so far asI can tell is changing the enculturation of women (and men). But doing that would require radically restructuring society so that (for instance) girls see as many women as men performing the jobs that have the highest status. Of course, achieving that requires that we address stereotype threat (inter alia). In the meantime, I think it would probably be more effective to prime the idea of female success at these tasks. Having a woman teach the class is a great start.

  18. Hi Neil,

    I worry the results from the studies you reference are easy to over-generalize. In particular, there’s a big jump from cases in which we mention or report the falsity of p to cases in which we discuss or analyze the falsity of p. Likewise for ironic effect: there’s a difference between saying to your students “Can everyone please not be sexist? Thanks!” and having an extended discussion of sexism.

    Talking about stereotype threat isn’t, of course, going to eliminate stereotype threat. But I’m in a situation where the conversation seemed really valuable for *some* of my students. It had a definite impact on the attitude and behavior of some of my more vocal male students, and my more confident female students were very thankful to me (almost depressingly so) for bringing up the subject and talking about it in class. So there was a real benefit to the conversation. But there was also a cost – a cost to perhaps the most vulnerable cohort of the class. I’d love it if there was a way to have this conversation that could garner the benefits (and maybe increase them) without the resultant costs.

    (Morgan, I like the idea of the real-world examples, with students guessing the gender. But I worry that my students are canny enough — and know me well enough — that they’d know what I was up to and just guess female by default, because they’d pick up on what I was up to or because they wouldn’t want me to think they’re sexist.)

  19. MM,

    That’s a tough one (I’m female, for the record). Whenever I talk about this stuff, I have the nagging worry that I’m going to come across as unbearably condescending. “Just believe in yourself! You can do anything!” I imagine that worry would be exacerbated if I was a man talking to young women. I’d be really interested to hear what others have to say about this — particularly if there are men who have tried something along these lines. Several men in my department have wanted to bring up the issue, and we’ve been having exactly this conversation.

    I really like JJ’s idea of easing into the discussion with examples of stereotype threat that have nothing to do with gender. Seems like that could help both to show the pervasiveness of the phenomenon and to relax everyone and lower the threat levels a little (by laughing at white guys and basketball).

  20. Yes, Neil. That was exactly what I was getting at. JJ mentioned the process of becoming a changed human being as well. Addressing stereothreat, like keeping house, or weeding a garden, changing one’s muscle-to-fat-ratio, or managing an illness is an ongoing process, not a one hour/week or one hour/semester novelty. Of course somebody who tries an exercise regime or comes up against conflicting ideas once/week will say “That’s uncomfortable. I don’t like it,” and then go back to whatever IS comfortable.

    We change damaging beliefs and the fears that they create by being aware of our own words and actions, every day. Maybe my list of comforting people and their comforting statements got a little long, but I’ve always preferred to demonstrate a point with cladograms and comparative analyses, rather than dropping syllogisms. What I was offering was a list of very different people working in very different fields who all had a similar knack for making their less confident students feel more at ease. Every day.

    I liked the “white guys can’t jump” suggestion, too.

  21. I also liked the way the article linked in comment #13 demonstrated the way our biases prevent us from picking up messages we disagree with.

    I’ll spare you my lengthy arguments against flu shots. Let’s just say my hackles went up over that one, and NOT because of unprovable claims of autism risks. I just don’t like salespitches for “insuring” myself or my kids against non-lethal, non-debilitating problems that are unlikely to happen at all. I’ve seen NO proof that my overcompensation by obsessive sanitizing is any less effective a means of virus prevention than some oversold vaccination that may have other side effects.

    They might as well be trying to sell me something to deal with the Muslims on my bus route who ‘might’ be terrorists. PFFT!!

  22. Personally I think handouts are a great way to reinforce concepts for those who didn’t quite follow the arguments in class. A handout on this could use a title phrased positively rather than negatively (as many comments suggest), with the added benefit of students being able to reflect on the concept at home. Even trying hard to actively follow in class, notes and all, I’ve found myself looking at handouts at home and realizing I missed some key points!

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