February 16, 2012

Testing "Stereotype Threat" Theory

imageBy Sally Raskoff

Have you heard that gender affects math skills? There are many studies and reports that document the different achievements of men and women in math.

This phenomenon can be explained in a number of ways, but one recent study attempted to analyze one specific theory.

Geary and Stoet’s study, soon to be published in the journal Review of General Psychology, assesses whether or not the “stereotype threat” theory can explain gender differences in math skills.


Stereotype threat predicts that group members will perform poorly on tasks associated with negative societal stereotypes about their abilities. Thus, women living in a society that believes that women do poorly in math compared to men will do poorly in math due to those expectations, lowered confidence and increased anxiety. (This theory is similar to the self-fulfilling prophecy and the Thomas Theorem.)

Geary and Stoet analyzed many different research studies using this theory to explain the gender-math phenomenon, and found that most had serious methodological problems. They conclude that the stereotype threat theory does not explain these differences.

Geary notes:

These findings really irritate me, as a psychologist, because this is a science where we are really trying to discover what the issues are. The fact is there are still a disproportionate number of men in top levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We need more women to succeed in these fields for our economy and for our future.

The press release from the University of Missouri shares the overview of the study and includes the quote above.

However, it also includes this quote: “The researchers believe that basing interventions on the stereotype threat is actually doing more harm than good, as vital resources are being dedicated to a problem that does not exist.”

A quick read of this sentence seems to suggest that the gender gap in math skills is a problem that doesn’t exist. However, they are correctly stating that basing interventions on incorrect assumptions about the source of the problem is in itself a problem.

In other words, there is a gender-math gap but it doesn’t appear, from this overview of the research, to be a gap caused by stereotype threat. Thus any interventions based on stereotype threat as a cause would be wasted efforts or might even cause more problems.

image Finding other studies to compare these findings with can also be instructive. Looking cross-culturally can show us that there are many different issues when looking at gender and math achievements. The gaps may be of different sizes and each culture may have different ideas about gender and its connection to math. However, culture and gender equality is clearly linked to these issues. (As this study shows).

In short, just because the studies that exist have flaws does not mean that the theory is useless. It also means that other theories must also be entertained. Some of those other theories might include dynamics that interact with elements of the stereotype threat, so we shouldn’t completely throw that theory out of contention.

Carefully interpreting just what is being researched is important too. The Huffington Post’s report on this study suggests that because different countries have different patterns in math performance by gender that talk about the gap is superfluous. They are expecting the same pattern everywhere because they expect to see a biological pattern that would be constant in every culture. This, however, totally misses the fact that culture, not biology, is a major factor in creating the gaps when they exist. Those gaps are real and have real consequences in the societies in which they exist.

Our job as educated citizens and students of sociology is to learn how to read such information, both in the press and in research, to get the most accurate picture possible. Without an accurate sense of research, we cannot make effective policy, nor can we effectively understand what goes on around us.


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I have recently studied the Scientific Method in my Sociology class. I see that in order to test this theory on the “Stereotype Threat” for gender affects math skills and the how gender may or may not affect math skills, the scientists and psychologists involved used the Scientific Method. They first developed their hypothesis to test, hoping they would either prove their hypothesis and continue with their research or disprove their hypothesis in order to take a new approach on the topic. Before they could do this though, they had to identify the problem. After going through all the steps of the Scientific Method, then they can formulate their conclusions and hopefully release their conclusions to the public in order to educate them. (As I can see they did—because they are soon to be published in the journal Review of General Psychology). It’s important to see that these scientists and psychologists use this Method everyday and it’s not just something we study in class. We can actually see how it becomes a part of the real world in which we live.

I strongly agree with Geary's Statement that you quoted, "These findings really irritate me, as a psychologist, because this is a science where we are really trying to discover what the issues are. The fact is there are still a disproportionate number of men in top levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We need more women to succeed in these fields for our economy and for our future." I myself, have never actually studied the 'Stereotype Threat', but I am aware of the fact that it is an issue that brings up a few ethical concerns.

Though there is a drastic ratio of men to women inhabiting math and science fields, it does not mean women are any less competent. Perhaps the gender-gap is because of the distinct stereotypical gender roles in our society. Incredibly talented women with strong left-brains would be putting their talents to good use, but are unable to because they have to fulfill their roles as a mother.

I find the "stereotype threat" to be a interesting its very similar to skewing results of a survey in sociology. I'm surprised that stereotype threat was not the answer to this gender-math phenomenon. However I still would agree with the university of Minnesota when they say that "stereotype threat is actually doing more harm than good." Based on what I'm learning, I feel that if a student was examined with a clear mind and with no previous bias they would do better than when given the anxiety of wanting to prove a stereotype wrong.

The stereotype threat is an inteligant concept, but unless drilled into the mind of the person, it should have little effect on a womens aptitude. I am not a women, but stereotypes that "men can't appreciate romance movies as well as women can" never enter my thought process when watching a romance. The pressure of someone implying you are incapable of doing a task is what prevents you from applying your self, not your gender.

This is an interesting topic because I never thought about that “gender would have an effect on math skills”. After reading Geary and Stoet’s definition of “stereotype threat” it surly was much like the “self-fulfilling prophecy”. For example if women believe they will do poorly on task, they surely will. This is because they have low confidence and the result is that it will cause them to do badly on their tasks. I’m not surprised that after Geary and Stoet did their following research on stereotype, they found out that stereotype threat theory does not explain the differences between why more men do better in math. And that is because we don’t understand what goes around us and we can’t judge to quick just from a theory. One needs to do more research and find more findings about that source to make an assumption. For example, in Biology we learned about the scientific method which is a method scientists’ use to test a theory. After several steps than one can make their conclusion. And even than it’s not 100% correct because it needs to be tested by other researchers. One also needs to think about the fact that there are many gifted women but they can’t use their brilliant brain because they are a mother and need to be a housewife more than outside in the field.

I find that this study is interesting. I never thought about gender and math skills and the correlation they have. I find it hard to believe that gender has much to do with it. I think it is all about the determination of the individual. If I were to study harder than my female friends than I would obviously score better , and vise versa.

I find the stereotype threat is interesting, yet it may never be proven true until we get read of the threat and notice the results. At the beginning of life girls are told to play with clothes and draw, all of this creative type games. Guys are told to build with legos and fix things. So by the time children get to school they already have this left brain-right brain stereotype. Every country has these kinds of stereotypes, so it is difficult to prove that stereotypes affect what a gender is good at.

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