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.


Change what you can, accept what you can’t … or influence?

Following on from our last blog on unconscious bias, many women (not just engineers) have emailed us asking for advice. If we can’t control the unconscious bias that we face in the recruitment process or even in the daily workplace, what do we do? Do we just work harder, change our attitudes and behaviours to ensure that we get noticed, or just accept what we can’t change?

A lot of popular self help books focus on the mantras “change what you can, accept what you can’t” and “You can only change yourself, not others”. When your career is at stake, I would suggest that is pretty bad advice!

Whilst I understand that it is difficult to change others, you can certainly influence their thoughts and therefore their behaviours.

So in a nutshell: Pre-empt the bias that you face, anticipate it, and address it openly without aggression! There are many instances in the recruitment process and beyond in the workplace where people will be making assumptions about you based on your gender.  You can anticipate these assumptions and address them.

Here are some examples:

1. Applying for a role

Suppose you apply for a role that suits your skillset and experience but that is likely to attract a lot of applications. What will the process look like?  There will be a recruiter sifting through a big pile of applications to generate a longlist of candidates. That initial sifting is not as scientific and objective as we like to think. Ultimately, a person with limited time has to find the candidates that are most likely to get the job. Bias will almost certainly be at play.

If you want to stand out in the process and ensure that you get through to the next phase, follow up your application with a phone call, or an excellent cover letter that gets their attention (and doesn’t reveal your name, and therefore gender until the end of the letter!). Remember, unconscious bias is not a malicious act of discrimination, it is the bucket of stereotypical thoughts that we have been fed throughout our lives and that linger in our brains. Recruiters will have a picture in their head of the ideal candidate, and in most cases (unless you apply for a role as secretary, teacher or nurse), that image will not be female.

2. Interviewing for a role

 Every interviewer knows that they are not allowed to ask the “child-related” questions, yet every hiring manager (male or female), really wants to know the answer to these questions.

This is the internal conversation happening in their head whilst they are talking to you: “Do you have children? …Will you want to have children? …When? …Will you return to work once you have children? … Can I really afford to hire you if you might have children one day and not come back? … I probably shouldn’t, too risky! “

Address them yourself. Why not? Even if you are not entirely sure, there is nothing wrong with answering what is true for you at that very moment. If at that moment in time you genuinely have no plans to start a family any time soon, say so! If at that moment in time you are pregnant, but feel that your career is very important to you and know that you will return to work after 3 or 4 months, say so!

I can almost visibly hear our readers sigh…

Yet consider this: Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, was pregnant when she got the job at Yahoo. I am fairly certain she shared that news and her plans on how she would combine her job as CEO with being a mother. In her case, that meant installing a nursery (at her own expense) next to her office, which off course I realise is not a realistic options for most of us. However, many women do return to work and continue to have successful careers. We do have options, and can combine work with a family as long as we don’t rule ourselves out too quickly.

This leads me to my last example:

3. How to share the news of your pregnancy

 Here is where the bias really hits you. Your boss will be thinking:

“Great, I guess I have to congratulate her! When is it due? Is she feeling healthy, will she start missing work, coming late… How long will she be off?… Oh yes, I can’t ask that… better start thinking about replacement… Who else can do her job?”

You might be thinking:

“I hope I am not going to miss that promotion now. I’m feeling really good and still have lots of energy. Besides, once the commute gets too much I could take the train an hour later and stay longer. The baby is due in June, and I’ll take 4 months off. I’ll be back in October when things are really busy.”

SAY IT! You will not even be considered for a promotion, pay increase or anything anymore if you don’t proactively share your thoughts on the impact of your pregnancy on your work. And that doesn’t have to mean pretending the pregnancy doesn’t impact you and you’ll go on as usual, just to share realistically how you will handle the likely impact on your work.

Many women might not agree with my ideas. At the end of the day, we had to fight for the right to not have to disclose our personal circumstances in an interview, or in the workplace.  I just believe that in this case, more disclosure might benefit us!