Facing Stereotype Threat

You’ve likely heard about the promotion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs for high school and undergrad students. Maybe you’ve witnessed the demand for workers to enter one of many STEM-related fields. It seems contradictory when we are always impatiently waiting the release of the latest, smallest, and newly updated iPad and reading about the latest medical studies and breakthroughs. So what’s with all the talk about women and STEM?

It’s stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat is the risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s certain group. It was first described by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson when they examined if an emphasis on race would affect the performance of African-American and White students on a section of the GRE, demonstrating that “performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes.” (reducingstereotypethreat.org)

This discovery immediately prompted further exploration. Since their 1992 study, nearly 300 studies have been published that further demonstrate that stereotype threat can inhibit a student from pursuing some courses of study and limiting their career options. Groups that are more likely to be affected by stereotype threat include Hispanics, students with a low-income background, females in mathematics, and “even white males when faced with the specter of Asian superiority in math.” (reducingstereotypethreat.org)

Regardless of whether or not one’s group is the more or less likely to suffer from this threat, those affected must seek out means of support that will allow them to excel without doubt. To me, I think the best suggestion that can be made is that those groups should actively seek out role models who have encountered a similar situation and eventually created a better situation for themselves and for the ones that followed them. For me, that includes Hypatia and Emmy Noether, both very famous women who made tremendous contributions and strides towards educating women and mathematics. Like them, I strive to make my own contribution, either in the field or to young female students. In turn, I simply hope to inspire others to do the same.

Val Armstrong
Pierce Arrow Managing Editor


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