Thursday, April 29, 2010

Facing up to Stereotype Threat

I was invited to give a talk for Astronomy Day at the Miami Planetarium. On my drive there Saturday, I had the sudden realization that I'm probably the only female PhD astronomer in, not just Miami, but all of south Florida. It was a bizarre feeling; made more bizarre by not ever having realized it that way before. (Granted, there are only about 6 or 7 professional astronomers in south Florida, but that means female astronomers are locally underrepresented relative to the national average.)

When I give public talks of any kind, I'm mildly ... concerned? aware?... that I'm likely to be a slight surprise to the audience because I'm female. This is part of the "heightened social visibility" underrepresented minorities have -- they tend to get noticed because they are different. Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, it's a thing that we deal with on some level. This is the flip side of mentoring: every time you do anything remotely professionally related, you're a role model whether you want to be or not, whether you're aware of it at the time or not. Men scientists are role models too, but the burden feels greater because I might be the only (or one of the few) female physical scientists someone ever comes in contact with, and I want people to know that women can be (good) scientists too.

This got me thinking about the idea of "stereotype threat" as presented in the AAUW report "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics." Stereotype threat occurs when "a person fears that his or her performance will be evaluated based on a negative stereotype." And the data show that despite gains, there are still negative, sometimes unconscious, biases and stereotypes (schemas) about women's abilities in science and math fields. The study uses the example that "a female student taking a difficult math test might experience an extra cognitive and emotional burden of worry that if she performed poorly, her performance would reinforce and confirm the stereotype that women are not good at math. This added burden of worry can have a negative effect on her performance." Not to mention that women believe they have to perform to a higher level to be considered proficient in fields where men are thought to excel than men believe they do (also highlighted in the AAUW presentation).

The good news is that studies show that stereotype threat is situational and when removed, performance increases. One of the suggested remedies is to "Expose girls to successful role models in math and science to combat the negative stereotypes about women in these fields."

I can identify with being subject to stereotype threat: I worry that if I do something poorly, it will have a negative effect on people's attitudes towards all women scientists. However, as a professional women scientist, I am also part of the solution because I am a role model (but I'd better be a good one--see the previous sentence). So when I give a public talk, in the back of my mind, I feel that I must do extremely well: first to overcome any (even subconscious) biases, second to perform to my own probably too-high standard, and third to be a good role model. Luckily, I am an excellent public speaker, so this is not hard. (I was tempted to put a ";)" here to avoid sounding like I'm bragging, but women also tend to downplay their skills and talents rather than acknowledge them, to their detriment, and we need to stop that!)