In our last class, we discussed the nature of stereotype threat and the effects it can have on performance, as described in Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi. One of the examples he discussed, the underperformance of women on math tests due to stereotype threat, is part of an issue that is very important to me — the relatively small number of women in STEM fields (science/technology/engineering/mathematics). Part of the reason for this is that my undergraduate institution, as one specializing in engineering, was predominately male. On their website, this university announces that it has one of the highest female populations among the nation’s technological research universities, with women making up approximately 25% of undergraduates.
Several years ago, I wrote a paper for an undergraduate class in which I argued that effective mentoring is the key to increasing female representation in STEM. At the time, I was thinking in particular of female role models. For example, in one study I cited, female students performed better on math tests when they were administered by female role models (such as a female STEM graduate student or professor). However, after reading the section in Whistling Vivaldi about the author’s positive cross-racial mentoring experience, I realize that I need to expand this idea to include “allies.” The simple interventions Steele describes to combat stereotype threat in general have been described as empowering, and I agree.
But there are obstacles. In class, we mentioned the controversial 2005 remarks made by Lawrence Summers, former President of Harvard, about the mathematical aptitude of women. In an article later that same year in The Chronicle, it was pointed out that his remarks alone could contribute substantially to the stereotype threat issue (presumably because of his status at the time as President of Harvard). The academic community responded with outrage, for the most part — however, some argued that ostracizing Summers compromised academic freedom. Further, the debate is ongoing — last year in The Chronicle, this article described studies that downplayed the importance of stereotype threat, ensuring that the controversy would continue.