My classmate and fellow engineer (or so it seems!) “Prof T” wrote a great entry about gender related stereotypes in STEM fields at her blog here. Besides that horrible spider she keeps as her banner, I loved the post! She spoke well on having female role models for female students in STEM classrooms and slowly making the transition to a diverse set of allies instead of just women.  I’d like to expand on that a little bit more.

For my PFP topic I wrote on increasing the quantity of women in STEM fields and while I had the same thought as Brandi initially I found a few studies that seemed to indicate just the opposite, oddly enough.Using some work from Shapiro (J. R. Shapiro and A. M. Williams, “The Role of Stereotype Threats in Undermining Girls’ and Womens’ Performance and Interest in STEM Fields,” Sex Roles, pp. 175-183, 2012.) I’d like to introduce the concept of a multi-threat framework.

The Multi-Threat Framework (MTF) is a system where stereotypes are broken down into six distinct categories using two different factors: the source of the stereotype as well as the target. It leads to the stereotype threat conclusions that we’re already familiar with but casts a more critical eye on the actual source of the threat.  Some common ones (and easy to illustrate) are

  • self as source:  the common one we know of – and to hark on a favorite stereotype – a girl just KNOWS she’s bad at math.
  • in group as source: a girl getting a bad grade on a math test feels worse about it if her teacher is female, as she’s let down somebody in the same minority
  • others as source: this girl is afraid that she’ll hold up the general image of women being bad at math; she’s letting her minority down.

It’s this “in group as source” stereotype threat that makes assuming a role model of the same minority stance a dangerous assumption. A young woman who takes and fails an exam with a female professor is considerably more likely to feel discouraged than a female taking an exam with a male instructor. It all boils down to disappointment. Somebody who should very well be your friend but, in actuality, is an enemy…

Frenemy: Someone who is both friend and enemy, a relationship that is both mutually beneficial or dependent while being competitive, fraught with risk and mistrust.

These threats that not only emerge within but act upon the same group are deadly. If one cannot trust and confide in their own minority, who can they talk to?! Perhaps, as Brandi rightly points out, they should rely on allies. People who may share similar experiences yet not the identical one.  Relatable yet not similar enough to be able to pass judgement not receive it. This requires openness and an acceptance of vulnerability for everybody involved – just enough to make a relationship seem inclusive but not so much as to become a therapist.  Positive role modeling without asking the mentee to literally become the mentor.

I say much of this with a grain of salt.  I’m a white male in a field dominated by white males.  I grew up in a privileged community where our school system buys SMART Boards for our kindergarteners. There’s not been a whole lot of adversity in my life, honestly, so I fear I’d be a pretty poor mentor for those people who might need it most.  It’s why I’m here in class, honestly. For those of use without experience or knowledge of a minority lifestyle we must learn empathy where full understanding is impossible.

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2 Responses to Frenemies

  1. sopranoali says:

    I find this post very interesting but just to add another dimension to consider: I’ve been approached by my female students as more “frenemy”, at least that is the vibe I have gotten from many of them. However, many of my male students actually come to office hours to get help and often to talk about issues in other classes, research opportunities, etc. I kind of put on my “advisor hat” and don’t really mind taking the time to do so as long as there isn’t a line out the door. I’ve especially noticed a sense of unease when male students come ask me how to do a problem, be it homework or post-test correction. It’s like they are threatened or somehow feel emasculated because they have to “get the answer from a woman”….thoughts?

    • frydrykd says:

      So your male students are comfortable talking about themselves to you but not the course content? That’s actually really interesting to me on a few levels.

      Did you have a gender-skewed set of friends growing up? I know that, for whatever reason (I personally blame growing up next to a nuclear power plant…) my elementary school classes were almost 70% females so I find that I’m more comfortable with the opposite sex because of it. I have no problem interfacing with my male students but I seem to be able to build a rapport with the female students in my classes more quickly than most of my male counterparts can. Rambling aside, I’m curious about your prior social circles outside of your university work.

      As for the emasculation, I think there’s definitely a possibility that your gender has role in their “defensiveness,” but it can’t be the only factor. I forward you to some crazy online arguments that break out on message boards: gender aside… nobody likes to be wrong and defending themselves is Priority Number One. So there’s that aspect, but I think you’re very likely right. Not only did a woman tell them they were wrong on a certain aspect but now they need to go and defend their answer to her. Our current gender structures and the hierarchy that most males are used to put them atop this dichotomy and when it’s flipped it can throw them for a loop. But honestly I do think it has more to do with the idea that they need to defend themselves at all. I get many male students that are defensive with me about work they turn in regardless of the fact that we share chromosomal patterns. It’s all about reframing the discussion from “I am right, you were wrong” into something more along the lines of “how I read your answer and what I was actually looking for.” Black and white to shades of gray.

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