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?