Stereotype threat – an obstacle to achievement – Mar 31 2010

A stereotype is just that- a negative label that can be assigned to a community, class, religion or gender that naturally does not hold true for the members of the specific group. For example the stereotype that ‘women cannot do maths’ or that ‘women cannot drive and read road maps’ are myths that are part of a prejudiced mindset against a specific gender. We know otherwise that there are girls who excel in maths and boys who can be no good in it. Many studies have proved that there are no differences between the cognitive skills of boys and girls and thus disprove that men and women are different neurologically and genetically in such skills. The differences in talent are not gender based but are individual specific but the development of talent can be hindered by the strong socio-cultural beliefs, norms and socialisation practices. Such gender stereotypes have been part of our cultural collective unconscious for generations over many centuries. This ultimately gets ingrained in the unconscious of each individual unless the person consciously works hard to break down the stereotypes and disprove them in their life.

One psychological study focuses on how these stereotypes can impact an individual’s performance in a negative manner which has repercussions for future thought and action in the field of education, work and achievement. Claudia Steele, Joshua Aronson and Steven Spencer in their study have found that ‘even passing reminders that someone belongs to one group or another, such as a group stereotyped as inferior in academics, can wreak havoc with test performance’. Steele, Aronson and Spencer have examined ‘how group stereotypes can threaten how students evaluate themselves, which then alters academic identity and intellectual performance. This social-psychological predicament can, researchers believe, beset members of any group about whom negative stereotypes exist’. This phenomenon is called as the ‘stereotype threat’.  Spencer, Steele, and Diane Quinn in another study found that merely telling women that a math test does not show gender differences improved their test performance. The researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. When test administrators told women that that tests showed no gender differences, the women performed equal to men. Those who were told the test showed gender differences did significantly worse than men, just like women who were told nothing about the test. This experiment was conducted with women who were top performers in maths.

Such is the effect of stereotype threat. A father who believes that girls cannot do ‘boys’ subjects, like, maths, science, might discourage his daughter to pursue science. He might unconsciously lower his expectations from his girl child in contrast to the high expectation he places on his boy child. ‘After all he has to be the bread winner and she need not be’ goes his traditional thought. This lowered expectation from his girl child may act as a serious de-motivator for her in such subjects and make her eventually slip into complacence. What get’s compromised is her inherent talent in the field and ultimately her level of achievement. On the other hand if a father believes in the equality of genders and does not harbour conscious unconscious negative stereotypical beliefs about his children and places proper expectations from both of them, the girl may come up to his expectation and perform better. Psychologically we are aware that realistically high expectations of parents from children make them improve performance and vice versa.

Stereotypes are manifested all the time in daily life- ‘ after all what can a woman do’; ‘she is dumb’; ‘women do not understand money at all’; ‘women are not practical creatures’; ‘girls are good for home science’; ‘women are bad drivers’; etc. Parents should challenge such stereotypes and seriously think about the talent of their children in an objective manner. If the talent is visible it should be encouraged without having a biased mind. If parents stand by in a supportive manner a whole pool of talent in many areas will be unleashed. By removing a significant psychological obstacle a major battle in the field of women’s empowerment will be won.

Published in The Hitavada – Women’s world Persona for 31 March 2010.

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