Stereotype threat – unconscious bias against yourself!

Many theories are advanced about the perpetuation of female inequality in academic and leadership roles, often concentrating on the practical side of a demanding career.  However, as women move into the majority of PhD and post-doc positions in some areas, and yet progression still stalls, more subtle causes are being explored. Many employers, including Imperial, now offer courses on Unconscious Bias to alert people to their embedded negative prejudices. One particularly interesting form of this is Stereotype Threat. This is a phenomenon occurring in specific situations, for example tests of skill, in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group. It is enhanced when they are reminded of their stereotype group close to the time of the test. Research first showed this in maths exams: equally intelligent women performed worse than men on a difficult maths test. Ticking a box to confirm their gender at the top of the paper made this more likely. However, when told in advance that women typically perform as well as men on the test, their scores equalised. In fact, women generally score better on math-based tests when tested in a female group rather than in a mixed-gender group. This effect is not confined to women: white males did worse when they believed that the object of the test was to demonstrate the superiority of Asian students in maths.  How can we overcome this self-sabotaging behaviour?  Even recognising the phenomenon can help and, for our students and trainees, carefully considering whether our actions can reinforce or remind people of negative stereotypes can be helpful. If you would like to know more, this is a link to an interesting lecture by Prof Jenny Saul (University of Sheffield) on Implicit Bias and Stereotype Threat:

By Prof Sian Harding (NHLI Institute Lead for Women)


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