While stereotypes are commonly understood phenomena, the concept of stereotype threat is not as widely acknowledged. Stereotype threat is defined as:
“… an individual’s concern with confirming a negative stereotype
about his or her group” (Schmader & Hall, 2014).
Stereotype threat can manifest in many different contexts and can be reinforced and perpetuated when organizations/institutions are not actively taking steps to mitigate it. It’s an insidious phenomenon: it can be subtle and difficuly to recognize, but has damaging consequences that build over time and can compromise the success of marginalized groups.
While stereotype threat can impact all groups of people, women and minority groups are particularly susceptible to its damaging effects. I think this is often very apparent in the context of academia, especially in STEM fields. My identity as a woman in psychological science is enmeshed with expectations and assumptions that some may have (explicitly or implicitly) about women in science.
Just recently, an example of this emerged in our department as a result of an unfortunate “reply-all” accident. Two older male faculty members exchanged a series of emails (which they thought were only being shared between them, but were, in fact, being sent to the entire department listserve) expressing their surprise that their former female students have managed to have successful academic careers AND fulfill roles as wives and mothers. While these comments were not malicious in intent, they still emulate a damaging stereotype: that women cannot balance both a successful academic career and a family.
Stereotypes such as these may make women with family commitments feel as if they do not belong in the academy. Women may feel like they have ‘something to prove’ to show that they can, in fact, manage both work and home life. Again, the definition of stereotype centers on “concern with confirming a negative stereotype about his or her group” (Schmader & Hall, 2014). Over time, the pressure to demonstrate academic success may build if a woman is concerned that any perceived weakness will reinforce the stereotype that she cannot do so while also taking care of her family and children. This may ultimately reduce one’s confidence and the cognitive resources needed to excel in academia.
Schmader and Hall’s paper, “Stereotype Threat in School and at Work: Putting Science Into Practice” offered a number of potential interventions that have been shown to combat stereotype threat across different contexts. I particularly like the suggestions regarding creating “identity-safe environments”. One way to create a safe environment is to increase diversity and representation within an organization. If a person from a marginalized group can see other people they identify with succeeding in that same space, that may be enough to blunt the effects of stereotype threat. Thus, hiring more individuals from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the academy can make departments a more inclusive space. In my own department, though the trainees are predominantly female, the faculty are majority male. Hiring more women could improve the culture of our department, and mitigate the stereotypes surrounding women’s roles as academics as well as mothers.
Schmader, T., & Hall, W. M. (2014). Stereotype Threat in School and at Work: Putting Science Into Practice. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 30–37.