Teaching about stereotype threat

On this blog and elsewhere, there have been lots of discussions of the high likelihood that women face stereotype threat in philosophy classes, which is likely to be especially strong in male-dominated, logic-y areas like metaphysics, language, logic, phil maths, etc. There’s also been discussion of what to do. And one frequently raised concern has been that teaching about stereotype threat could heighten stereotype threat. After all, it makes women students more aware of their gender and also of the maleness of the subject– both factors that could help to produce a threat-provoking situation. It turns out that psychologists have studied this with women and maths. And– good news!– teaching about stereotype threat at least sometimes *eliminates* it. It may be important that the form this teaching takes is that of giving students an “external” (to them) explanation for stress they may be experiencing: “It’s important to keep in mind that if you are feeling anxious while taking this test, this anxiety could be the result of these negative stereotypes that are widely known in scoiety and have nothing to do with your actual ability to do well on the test”.* (Said after first explaining about stereotype threat.)

We tested whether informing women about stereotype threat is a useful intervention to improve their performance in a threatening testing situation. Men and women completed difficult math problems described either as a problem-solving task or as a math test. In a third (teaching-intervention) condition, the test was also described as a math test, but participants were additionally informed that stereotype threat could interfere with women’s math performance. Results showed that women performed worse than men when the problems were described as a math test (and stereotype threat was not discussed), but did not differ from men in the problem-solving condition or in the condition in which they learned about stereotype threat. For women, attributing anxiety to gender stereotypes was associated with lower performance in the math-test condition but improved performance in the teaching-intervention condition. The results suggest that teaching about stereotype threat might offer a practical means of reducing its detrimental effects.

For more, go here.

*It seems that giving students an external explanation for anxiety can work quite generally to combat stereotype threat: telling them (falsely) that there’s a subliminal noise in the room that they might find unsettling is equally effective, though more pedagogically dubious.

3 thoughts on “Teaching about stereotype threat

  1. So it looks like the performance effect of raising stereotypes is due to anxiety, and anything that externalizes the anxiety will cancel out the anxiety that is caused. I like that study, because it shows that correctly attributing the anxiety directly to gender stereotypes improves performance. The stereotype threat also appears if women do math tasks in a room filled with men, and probably also appears through the same way in philosophy classrooms when the sex ratio is also poor.

    I wonder if women could cancel out the stereotype threat’s effects on their own, by reminding themselves that if they are anxious, maybe it’s because of the stereotype threat. All the studies I see so far have people instructed about the stereotype effect, but if you told women that if they felt anxious doing a math problem in a male-dominated setting, it was the stereotype threat, and then you had them do a math problem in a male-dominated setting, would you have good performance? If that would turn out correct, maybe teaching people about stereotype threats: what ones there are, and how they create anxiety, etc., could give people a tool for nullifying its effect in the future.

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