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The CataLyst: The Stereotype Threat

At certain points in my life when I meet new people, the question of what I do for a living eventually surfaces. “So what do you work with?” they ask, to which I reply – trying to sound as neutral and normal as I possibly can – “I’m a chemical engineer.” Most of the time I’m met by silence, followed  by a facial expression that’s trying to not look surprised, and then a casual “Oh really, I wouldn’t have guessed that.”

I catch myself wanting to start a discussion at that point, asking people why they “wouldn’t have guessed that.” But then I remember why.

It’s the fact that things like this existed until very recently:

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And these kinds of stereotypes and generalisations are made every day, in a non-satirical way:

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Sheryl Sandberg, the founder of Lean In, explains Stereotype Threat with these words:

Stereotype threat means that the more we’re aware of a stereotype, the more we act in accordance with it,” Sandberg explains. “So, stereotypically we believe girls are not good at math. Therefore, girls don’t do well at math, and it self-perpetuates. If you ask a girl right before she takes a math test to check off ‘M’ or ‘F’ for male or female, she does worse on that test. The reason there aren’t more women in computer science is there aren’t enough women in computer science.

The truth is these stereotypes are ingrained everywhere, and everyone carries these biases around. When the founder of the popular Facebook site “I F***ing Love Science” revealed her gender (although she’d never actively tried to hide it), fans of the page were stunned. In an interview she said: 

“Commenters said they were very sort of surprised they had the same bias within themselves. They were saying ‘[I] didn’t realize that I had this, but I obviously do. I never dreamed that I was sexist in any way, I never dreamed that I had this bias, but it’s there. I thought you were a guy.”

And it’s not surprising really, when these stereotypes get perpetuated and replicated everywhere we look. Despite the fact that there are more female STEM-literate roles in films and on TV (like Natalie Portman’s physicist in Thor, and Sandra Bullock’s doctor/astronaut in Gravity), many shows play on the old biases. CBS’ The Big Bang Theory has typecast female scientists into the “weirdo” role and the only other female character is the normal non-scientist. I personally find the show funny and entertaining because I can see its satirical side, being “behind the scenes” myself, so to speak. But for people who are not in STEM, this might be interpreted as a true representation of what STEM communities are like.

A study conducted by Sapna Cheryan from the University of Washington found that students who did not do computer science believed computer scientists to be intelligent but with poor social skills. They were also perceived as liking science fiction and spending hours playing video games. Some participants even went so far as to describe computer scientists as thin, pale (from being inside all the time), and having poor hygiene.

Participants were also asked to read articles claiming that computer scientist no longer fit those stereotypes, and another which claimed they do. The articles were identical with the exception of their opposing claims. While men were unaffected, women who read the article with non-stereotypical images were significantly more interested in majoring in computer science than women who read the article with gendered stereotypes.

The problem with these stereotypes have been outlined in several research papers, and even to those of us who study and work within STEM, these biases come so naturally. I frequently catch myself defaulting to male language (he, him, his) when speaking about work, research or people I don’t know. It’s a constant battle to undo years of being exposed to these stereotypes, and even though I know that we can’t all fit in to these narrow templates, it’s difficult to break away from an old habit.

One small change that might have a big impact is our spoken language . If you don’t know the gender, don’t assume it’s a man and maybe use “they” instead? These conscious choices that we make will eventually lead to a bigger change, and a different perception.

If you have any good examples of communities, websites or people who break these stereotypes, or just tips and tricks on how to stop enforcing stereotypes, please share them here. I’m sure we would all benefit from some new shades of STEM.

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  • a
    April 19, 2014 at 11:14 am

    As an interesting exercise in examining the way we speak – the google chrome extension “Jailbreak the Patriarchy” switches the gender of what we read online. [http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/11/15/jailbreak-the-patriarchy-chrome-extension/] “This neat little project allows you to reframe the information you encounter on the internet by switching the gender of the content presented. The extension basically replaces instances of man with woman, he with she, and various other nouns and pronouns with their gendered equivalent.”

    It can be downloaded as an extension for your google chrome browser [here: http://goo.gl/MWY8LP%5D and toggled on and off. It can help to fight some of the long-standing exposure to gendered stereotypes – and help our brain exercise in ways that start to question those old habits.

    There’s also a jailbreak the binary extension that – when toggled on – makes the internet gender neutral. [http://goo.gl/OiWCrz]

  • Catariya Lundgren
    April 22, 2014 at 3:01 am

    Very interesting! Will definitely have a look at this, thanks!