Can stereotypes affect your success?

Today, I had the pleasure of attending a Women in Math discussion and video seminar by Dr. Claude Steel from Stanford University about math stereotypes.  Steel recently wrote the book Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.  The lecture is available online (check your library catalog or database for “Race, Racism, and Antiracism”).

Steel argues that achievement gaps–such as those that we see in higher education–are not primarily due to differences in preparation.  Steel is a psychologist who has examined achievement gaps through the issue of stereotypes.  He defines stereotype threat refers to the experience of being in a situation in which a negative stereotype for a group applies.  He studies how the stereotype structure of a society trickles down to the individual level to ultimately affect identity and achievement.

What does this have to do with math?

One study evaluated how men and women performed on a difficult math test for math majors in college.  They reasoned that women would experience this test different than men, from a psychological point of view, since our society acknowledges a stereotype about group-based limits of women’s ability to do well in math.  Men have no such expectation, so one group has an expectation to contend with and the other doesn’t.  Men do better on this test than women, although both groups were on the “frontier of their skills.”  Does this suggest than men are better than math than women? Only if the disparities persist regardless of the stereotype threats that are present.  (And if you regularly read this blog,then you probably know the answer to this question).

The hypothesis was that if you remove the stereotype threat and the disparity goes away, then the stereotype affects math performance.  And, yes, the disparities went away.  The results were replicated with other groups/stereotypes (such as race), and the findings held.  They also found that the disparities were highest among students that highly identify with school and with students that are told that the test measures ability.  No disparities occur for the students who don’t care about school.  For women in math, a paper in Psychological Science found that the degree to which a woman’s math performance varied was a function of how many men were also taking the test.

Steel claims that all of things findings point to students performance being linked to this question: How welcome am I in this environment?

In higher education, we mainly have students that care about doing well in school, and thus, we are susceptible to stereotype threats.  Steel has some suggestions:

  1. First, acknowledge that the stereotypes are there and that they affect performance.
  2. Communicate that one has high standards, but that you believe the students can meet them.
  3. Let students know that intelligence isn’t fixed, but can be increased through hard work.

The ensuing discussion revealed that professors can reinforce the notion that we believe that students are capable of doing the work, even though the material might be challenging.

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