The 2010 report entitled, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), profiles the research of Dr. Joshua Aronson, a psychologist at New York University, who shows that negative stereotypes about girls’ and women’s abilities in math and science persist and can adversely affect their performance in these fields through a phenomenon known as stereotype threat. Stereotype threat arises in situations where a person fears that her or his performance will be evaluated based on a negative stereotype.
For example, 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. In one experiment, researchers gave a math test to two groups of female and male college students with similar math abilities. One group was told that men perform better than women do on the test (the “stereotype threat” group), and the other group was told that there were no gender differences (the “no stereotype threat” group).
The results are shown in the graph. The researchers found that women did significantly worse than men did in the “stereotype threat” group. Women scored 5 on average and men scored 25 on average. But in the “no stereotype threat” group, women and men performed equally well (within the statistical uncertainty). The researchers concluded that because women’s performance improved when there was no “threat,” it must have been something about the testing situation rather than women’s innate ability that accounted for the difference in their performance in the threat group compared to the no threat group. This result has been shown again and again in other experiments.
This finding also points to some good news. Since “stereotype threat” is largely situational, girls’ performance improves when the threat is removed. Researchers recommend some simple suggestions that have been shown to lessen the impact of stereotype threat and improve girls’ performance. For example, exposing girls to successful role models in math and science can combat the negative stereotypes about women in these fields. Also, explicitly talking to students about stereotype threat has resulted in improved performance.
This research demonstrates the continuing power of gender stereotypes. It also helps explain a puzzling discrepancy between girls’ grades, which are generally higher than boys’ even in high school math and science, and their performance on high-stakes exams such as the SAT math or Advanced Placement calculus exams, where their performance still lags behind that of male students.
Note: much of this text is from the AAUW ppt describing highlights of the Why So Few? report.