Research Finds No Evidence That “Stereotype Threat” Affects Women’s Mathematical Abilities

The psychological concept of “stereotype threat” states that when women are made aware of negative stereotypes about women’s abilities in science and mathematics, this alone can hinder a woman’s performance in STEM subjects. A recent study led by Charlotte R. Pennington of the University of the West of England in Bristol, has found that there there is no significant evidence that stereotype threat impacts women’s performance.

The researchers wanted to examine two theories that have been suggested to explain how stereotype threat affects women. The first idea suggests that when women are aware of the negative stereotype, they become too concentrated on disproving it rather than focusing on the actual task. The second idea proposes that upon hearing about the negative stereotype, women believe it applies to themselves and they question their ability to succeed.

The research team conducted two studies. On study asked women to look in the opposite direction from an object is moving and researchers measured how well participants were able to do so. Some of the women were told that men performed better than women on this task. The second study was similar but included an arithmetic test. In both experiments, some participants were told that women generally performed worse than men, but in the second study some participants were told the opposite.

The results showed that across both studies, exposure to negative stereotypes had no impact on the women’s performance.

The full study, “Stereotype Threat May Not Impact Women’s Inhibitory Control or Mathematical Performance: Providing Support for the Null Hypothesis,” was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. It may be accessed here.

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