Knowing Is Half the Battle: Why We Have to Continue to Educate Women in STEM About Unconscious Bias and Stereotype Threat

stereotype threat

I was recently confronted by a female engineer who thought it was wrong to emphasise unconscious bias against women in STEM so much. She felt that women found themselves in a situation where an over awareness of the potential bias they face actually increases their anxieties and negatively impacts their performance.

She is not wrong. It is a well-known fact (and well researched topic) that women who are aware that they are viewed as less able in STEM subjects perform under their ability in these subjects. So would it not be more effective to just not discuss it any more, abolish all initiatives aimed at women in STEM and continue to work hard until women represent 50% of all engineers?

I wish the answer could be that simple. If it were, why do we still have so few female engineers and why is the percentage of female graduates decreasing in many STEM subjects? Wishing women to be ignorant about the bias they face is not realistic unfortunately. Those talented women who became engineers or scientists only need to look around them to see that they are in the minority. Whether we like it or not, conscious or not, they will understand that they do not conform the norm.

They read the media, they see the headline articles proclaiming that new research in neuroscience has found that boys’ brains are more geared to mathematics, and girls’ brains to language and emotion. So more often than not, they know and feel that they do not belong, that they are an anomaly.

Our awareness of (unconscious) bias against women in STEM leads to stereotype threat, a phenomenon first described in a research paper by Steele & Aronson in 1995. The researchers found that performance can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behaviour might be viewed through the lens of stereotypes. Their study researched racial stereotyping, but research since has proven the existence of stereotype threat in many other areas, including women in maths and STEM subjects more generally. A number of other consequences have been linked to stereotype threat. As well as academic performance, participants in studies have been found to reduce their practice time for a task, have reduced sense of belonging to the stereotyped domain, and choose to no longer pursue the domain.

The danger is real. Where women feel that that they are biased against, they suffer from stereotype threat, thereby genuinely impacting their performance. In other words, the bias becomes reality.
A lot of research has been conducted to find ways to reduce stereotype threat. In their research conducted in 2005, Johns, Schmader & Martens found that women who learned about stereotype threat and how it can interfere with their performance did not perform worse. The effect of stereotype threat was mitigated by the very understanding of the concept; hence knowing is half the battle.

Other proven methods that mitigate the effect of stereotype threat include the development of a self that includes multiple areas, beyond gender. Self-affirmation, the explicit understanding of your skills, characteristics, values and roles has also proven to make a difference. In other words, if we help women to see themselves as unique individuals, who make up their own mind about their ability and values we can impact their performance.

All of this proves that we need to do more than change our recruitment practices to increase the number of women working in STEM. In engineering, 15% of all graduates are female, yet only 7% of all working engineers are female. Women engineers get less chances for promotion than their male peers, and are more likely to leave the profession to change careers. Stereotype threat continues to exist after the female engineer has been hired, and we need to continue focusing on removing its effect.

I believe strongly that we have to continue to educate female engineers and women working in other areas of STEM. They have to understand that
– there is no scientific proof for any perceived inferiority in maths, spatial awareness etc
– ability and intelligence are areas where individuals vary regardless of gender
– lots of people (men and women) unconsciously believe that women are inferior in STEM subjects
– women therefore underperform in STEM because of stereotype threat
– stereotype threat can be removed through education and a development of a strong sense of self

Image from Scientific American, the Need for Belonging in Math and Science, Scott Barry Kaufman, October 21, 2013
All other references and research papers available on request.


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