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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What are the key challenges to creating a gender balance at all levels in organisations?

Below is the essay I submitted to the 30% as part of a scholarship application for an Executive MBA at Henley Business School. I was offered a 50% scholarship.

It is not a coincidence that the debate around gender balance has come up in recent times, as the disappointment of the first and second generation of women with equal opportunities in the workplace sets in. Women graduating in the 1980s and 1990s genuinely believed that they would have the same career opportunities as their male peers. We continued to believe this in the first years after graduation, as we started to climb the corporate ladder on the first steps of management.

Yet, all of sudden, all those years after graduation, we look around us and we notice that there are very few women left. Most have given up on the way, taken part time jobs that work around child care, been “lucky” to have a husband who can provide, or decided to start up their own business around the kitchen table.

We were naïve in our assumption that we would be treated equal, and are right to now reinvigorate the debate on gender equality. We often hear that the new generation of girls graduating are less feminist, have less aspirations, have given up on the vision of gender equality. I believe however that they are more realistic and are more aware of the persisting inequality in the higher echelons of corporations. They have a better chance to achieve equality if we give them the right tools.

The generation of women starting out in corporate life in the last 20 years were a little like the soldiers in the trenches in WW1. The soldiers were sent to attack the enemy with very little information about the position of the Germans, the location of the enemy trenches, the presence of barbed wire preventing access to the trenches and the danger of exposure in the open field. Yet they came out of the relative security of their own trenches in big numbers, scared but confident that their leaders would show them the way and help them to reach the other side.  The result: a four year long war with hardly any territorial gains. We no longer fight wars that way. We extensively train our soldiers, prepare them for all possible scenarios and terrains, and give them access to specific tools suitable to their situation.

We can do the same with our young women starting out in the workplace today. They are less naïve, they understand that it will be difficult, and they are happy to listen to advice and learn from the mistakes of the generations who came before them.

A large body of research exists trying to understand the reasons why women struggle to make it to the top in their chosen career field. In a nutshell, the research can be divided in two groups. On the one hand we have the neuroscientists focusing on the differences in brain function between men and women. A prominent example is Professor Simon Baron Cohen from Cambridge University, who has come to the conclusion that “a brain type that leans towards strong systemising is more common in males”. His research has subsequently picked up by others, as is exemplified in the speech given by Larry Summers, former president of Harvard University a few years ago in which he states that “The under-representation of female scientists at elite universities may stem in part from innate differences between men and women”.

This research is also used as the basis for many popular science books and articles  and has resulted in a large body of work with titles such as “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” or “Why Men Don’t Listen & Women Can’t Read Maps”. 

Another group of scientists focuses on understanding the environmental factors that puts women at a disadvantage, the stereotype threat that has a real impact on a woman’s ability to perform and the unconscious bias women face at work.

This unconscious bias is the result of generations of inequality, fed by the attention given by the press and popular science books to the supposed hard wired differences between men and women, as illustrated above. Unconscious bias does not reflect our conscious or aware thinking, it is the stereotypical thinking that lingers in our brains and that we as people need in order to make quick decisions every day. Many people know the example used by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink. He compared the average height of the CEOs in the Fortune 500 with men in the general population and found that 58% of male CEOs were over 6’ tall versus 14.5% of men in the general population. I am fairly confident that no one rationally believes that tall men are better leaders, yet unconsciously, we still hang on to our stereotypical thinking from prehistoric times, where it was indeed advantageous to have a physically strong leader in order to survive as a group.

Because the bias is unconscious it is very difficult to address and understand its exact impact.  We are dependant on experiments conducted in a controlled lab environment to appreciate the impact that unconscious bias has on women in real life. Women can e.g. be exposed to unconscious bias in the hiring process, performance reviews and during promotion discussions.

To make matters worse, women might even perform less because of their own unconscious bias. This phenomenon is known as stereotype threat. Research has shown that women and girls underperform when they believe bias is at play as this has an impact on their self confidence. As an example, researchers at the University of Leuven (Belgium) have shown that first year female engineering students have on average better secondary maths results (equivalent to A levels) and should therefore be expected to perform better. On average, they also studied harder than their male peers. Yet their confidence as expressed in surveys was substantially lower and they did not perform better at exams. In another experiment conducted in the US, students divided in two groups were given a math test. One group was told that some people perform better at maths than others; the control group was told that no gender differences have been found. Unsurprisingly, women in the second group performed substantially better than in the first group and outperformed their male peers.

The key to removing gender barriers and to ensure gender balance at all levels within an organisation is to remove unconscious bias and the impact of stereotype threat. In practice, this means that we need to create awareness with all stakeholders influencing hiring and promotion decisions, helping them understand and address their own unconscious bias. Gathering comparative data across decision makers and departments can easily highlight areas of concern. As an example, an organisation can compare the average score given to male employees in performance reviews with female employees, and gather the data per manager, department, and business unit. 

Secondly, we need to remove unconscious bias and stereotype threat from all women in the workplace to increase their performance.  Effective ways to achieve this can be exposure to successful senior role models, targeted mentoring and coaching to increase self confidence.  Many organisations are reluctant to treat their women differently, and indeed many women are wary of being treated differently. Yet to allow more women to grow within their organisations and reach the upper echelons of management, treating women differently and formalising the support they receive could be the answer. So without advocating imposing quotas, I firmly believe that  positive action will be part of the solution.