The Subtle ‘Stereotype Threat’ That May Be Driving Women Out of Science-Related Fields


According to new research into the glaring gender gap in science and math-related fields, the psychological phenomenon known as the “stereotype threat” may be discouraging female scientists from relishing their work, which sucks because without more women entering the scientific workforce, America is probably going to soon become a nation of cave-dwelling primates that believe thunder is just God’s giant cosmic dog thumping against celestial floorboards in an effort to scratch behind its ear. Or some such non-scientific wackiness.

NPR’s Shankar Vedantam reports on a study about why so many women drop out of science-related fields conducted by University of British Columbia psychologist Toni Schmader and her University of Arizona colleague Matthias Mehl. Using a device called an Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR) that the Stasi would have been super jealous of, Schmader and Mehl collected daily soundbites (about 5 an hour and 70 a day) of women working in science-related fields. They found that, whereas men seemed more energized when discussing their work, when women talked to their male colleagues about work, they seemed disengaged. When women talked to other female colleagues about work, however, they seemed engaged, and when they talked to men about leisure activities, the anxieties that marred previous work-related conversations vanished. Schmader and Mehl looked for instances of men being overtly hostile or nasty to their female colleagues as a possible explanation for this disconnect, but, finding that all the conversations were perfectly civil, they realized that there was another far more subtle phenomenon causing women who’d endured grueling Ph.D. programs to suddenly cut their science careers short.

Schmader and Mehl identified the “stereotype threat,” a psychological phenomenon first identified by psychologist Claude Steele, as the culprit behind the dearth of women in science-related fields. Steele explained the threat as something that, though never necessarily overt, would hang over the heads of certain groups of people like a cloud, affecting the way they saw themselves in the context of a larger group of people. Describing how the “stereotype threat” affects us, Steele wrote,

Everyone experiences stereotype threat. We are all members of some group about which negative stereotypes exist, from white males and Methodists to women and the elderly. And in a situation where one of those stereotypes applies – a man talking to women about pay equity, for example, or an aging faculty member trying to remember a number sequence in the middle of a lecture – we know that we may be judged by it.

As it pertained to Schmader and Mehl’s study, the stereotype threat made women second guess themselves when they talked to a male colleague because there’s an implicit cultural assumption that men are just naturally more inclined towards the sciences than women. That, coupled with the fact that the sciences are dominated by men threw female scientists off-balance in their work-related conversations with male colleagues. According to Schmader,

For a female scientist, particularly talking to a male colleague, if she thinks it’s possible he might hold this stereotype, a piece of her mind is spent monitoring the conversation and monitoring what it is she is saying, and wondering whether or not she is saying the right thing, and wondering whether or not she is sounding competent, and wondering whether or not she is confirming the stereotype.

Schmader and Mehl warned that people shouldn’t take this to mean that the difficulty women have staying put in science fields is all some elaborate, paranoid fiction — the stereotype threat is a very real and pernicious phenomenon that keeps people from feeling confident about their standing within a particular community. When women look around a lab and see a bunch of lab-coated penises flopping from petri dish to petri dish, they might wonder if they really belong in that environment. “If people like me,” Schmader said, explaining a female scientist’s dismay at finding herself the seeming exception to some unspoken stereotype, “aren’t represented in this field, then it makes me feel like it’s a bad fit, like I don’t belong here.” The only way to combat the stereotype threat, then, is to more actively encourage women to enter the sciences, which in turn will keep America out of the caves and maybe help us staff up a mission to Mars. Come on, people, we can totally do this.

‘Stereotype Threat’: Why Women Quit Science Jobs [NPR]

Image via wavebreakermedia ltd/Shutterstock.

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