Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Stereotype Threat

As the title suggests, this is a post about stereotypes and the negative effect they can have on people. As a rule, this topic is covered quite well by mainstream media, so I will try and keep the blindingly obvious to a minimum.

You’ll find that most cultures, if not all, make sweeping generalisations about male and female differences. To supplement these generalisations, we allow for ‘anomalies’ i.e. people who breakaway from their pink or blue mould.

We observe average differences between sexes; on average women are more likely to wear make-up. Yet these differences are tiny compared to the differences between people and even cultures; if you compare Germany and England for example, English women are more likely to wear make-up. If you then turn to England and compare female athletes with female bar tenders,  you’ll probably find that more bar tenders wear make-up. As you can see, the number of women wearing make-up is diminishing quite rapidly. And let’s not forget that plenty of men wear make-up too: Actors, presenters, musicians, politicians, in fact many men in the public eye are indeed wearing make-up. I have, perhaps unwisely, chosen an easily and widely observed gender difference, but it is nevertheless apparent how frequently these so-called gender differences are wrongly assumed.

If we turn once again to intellectual differences, we can see how scientists fall prey to generalisations; ‘there are a lot of pressures that result in scientists looking for a simpler picture. That’s kind of what science is meant to be about; we’re meant to be able to discover some rules that let us predict things, so there’s a tendency to want to simplify things in order to discover rules and predict things, and in most fields that works fine. But it doesn’t work well in fields where people already have stereotypes, because the stereotypes become the rules’ (Melissa Hines, Professor of Psychobiology at Cambridge University). Hence we have a tendency to explain things in gender specific terms, rather than through more critical analysis of our observations. (1)

This issue is not helped by the assumption that biological explanations are the latest thing, hot off the press, read all about it. Many scientists and journalists alike, give the impression that they are bravely publishing these modern ideas in the face of opposition. An American journalist recently said, ‘we’ll probably never know how great a role biology plays in gender differences, because feminists try to prevent anyone from researching it’(2). Au contraire Mr Journalist, ‘neuroscientists are by no means being prevented from researching the biology of sex differences. It’s hard to think of any topic that has been getting more study recently.’ (3)

I will be writing a post entitled ‘The Blue Taboo?’ that will go into more detail about whether or not feminists really are preventing scientists and the media from stating biological gender differences. Right now however, I should note that it is important for dissenting voices to be heard, for when biological differences fall into disrepute the stereotypes that remain in their wake can be devastating.

There are an increasing number of studies on how the expectations placed on the groups to which we belong can affect our performance as individuals. One of the first studies of this kind was published in 1999. Three psychologists, Steele, Spencer and Quinn, gathered male and female undergraduates to take maths test in which women had previously been seen to do worse than men. They split the women and men into two groups: men and women in the first group were told that in the past, there had been clear gender differences in performance. The second group was told that women and men had performed equally on this test in the past. The results showed that women in the first group performed worse than the men, whereas in the group which had been told that women and men had performed equally in the past, the sex difference in attainment was eliminated. (4)

What makes this study even more interesting is that the psychologists found the stereotype did not need to be ‘activated’ for women to perform less well. If told nothing about attainment, men still out performed the women; if told that gender differences had never been seen, women once again performed just as well as the men. (5)

It seems obvious to me that minds struggling with negative stereotypes and anxious thoughts, are not in a psychologically optimal state for taxing intellectual performance (6). It is important to note that these nervous and tentative states of mind are not characteristic of the female brain, but of anyone suffering from ‘stereotype threat’.

Unfortunately stereotype threat hits the people who want to succeed in quantitative domains hardest. People who feel they have the most to lose by doing badly (e.g. reinforcing a stereotype, losing a job, letting people down etc.) are hit hardest by stereotype threat. There is also the problem that as a female mathematician for example, climbs the career ladder, she finds herself increasingly outnumbered by men. This in itself is enough to trigger stereotype threat, and a woman in this position may grudgingly come to believe that females are indeed worse at maths. (7)

The good news is that people are becoming increasingly aware of stereotype threat. If you type ‘women worse at maths’ into google search, you will be drowned by articles saying ‘it’s not true!’, ‘studies reveal women are as good at maths’, ‘they‘re lying to you!‘ etc. A little positive reinforcement goes a long way, but the difficulty lies in establishing where it’s really needed.

What concerns me most about stereotype threat is that it can reduce interest in cross-gender activities. Mary Murphy and her colleagues at Stanford University devised two groups consisting of both female and male MSE majors (advanced maths, science and engineering) and played them an advertising video for a conference. There were in fact two videos, both with about 150 people depicted in them. One video approximated the actual ratio of men and women with MSE degrees: 3 men to every 1 woman, whereas the other video featured men and women in equal numbers. Physiological reactions (heart rate, skin conductance) of the students were recorded, to give a measure of arousal. After viewing the video, women and men expressed to what degree they felt they belonged to the conference in question. (8)

The women and men who saw the gender-equal video reported equal interest in the conference, sense of belonging and very similar physiological reactions were detected. This was not the case for women viewing the realistically imbalanced version: they became more aroused - an indicator of physiological vigilance, and they expressed far less interest in attending the conference. After seeing an accurate impression of current male dominance in such sectors, they were no longer so sure that they belonged. (9)

An example for men is childcare. It’s not only unusual for men to be seen in this profession, but there are an awful lot of horrible assumptions made about men who work with children. They are likely to be viewed with suspicion by both parents and by colleagues. You could be the most caring, honest and compassionate man in the world, and all you want is to work with children… but what man wants to step into that kind of environment?

So there you have it. Stereotype threat. That’s why people raise hell when Topshop or other popular retail outlets release clothes with sexists slogans such as ‘I’m too cute for maths’. Taken out of context these are innocent enough statements, but these statements cannot be taken out of context when you live in a society surrounded by stereotypes.

I suppose it could be worse. They haven’t released an ‘I like to play with my son’ t-shirt for men yet. If they did, I doubt the backlash of people saying ‘it’s just a joke, you’re making a fuss about nothing’ would be quite so severe, when it’s that obvious.

(1) Melissa Hines, Professor of Psychobiology at Cambridge, ‘Brain Gender’, 2004
(2) Christ Caldwell, ‘Taboos that Undid Summer’ Financial Times, 24th Feb 2006
(3) Mark Liberman, ‘More functional neuroanatomy of science journalism’, Language Log, 18th March 2008.
(4) Spencer, Steele and Quinn, ‘Stereotype threat and women’s math performance’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 1, (1999), 4-28
(5) As described in ‘Living Dolls’, Natasha Walter 2010 p. 206
(6) Cordelia Fine, ‘Delusions of Gender’, 2010 pp 33 -34
(7) Schmader, Johns & Barquissau, 2004
(8) Murphy, Steele & Gross, 2007
(9) As described in ‘Delusions of Gender’, 2010, pp 42-43

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