Female Stereotype Threat Hurts Women, Economy

Guest Blogger: Elizabeth Wingfield, Former WLP Intern

In an article for WeNews, Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers demonstrate that girls still internalize stereotypes about female performance in math and science, making them less likely to pursue careers in those fields. While the percentage of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers is rising, according to Barnett and Rivers girls need to hear earlier that there are no innate gender differences in math and science if we want to eradicate stereotype threat (“that confidence-killing burden of anxiety”) and therefore see more women  in STEM careers.

Barnett and Rivers report that a 2009 study found “that middle school girls did less well on a math test when told that boys generally did better in math than girls. Even girls who denied they held a belief in girls’ inferiority did poorly. Without the negative information, they score nearly as well as men.” Girls have proven their ability to compete with their male counterparts by taking the top prizes at Google’s first science fair and taking roughly the same number of math and science courses in middle and high school as boys. However, girls still hold a disproportionately low percentage of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering. Even those women who do hold undergraduate STEM degrees are less likely to work in a STEM career than their male counterparts. Barnett and Rivers blame stereotype threat for this disparity.

The lack of women in STEM occupations is a “brain drain” that the US cannot afford. According to “Rebecca Blank, acting deputy secretary of the Commerce Department…the lack of women in STEM is harming U.S. ability to compete in the global innovation marketplace.” But, “fortunately…a team led by psychologist Anthony Greenwald at the University of Washington discovered that although girls in the early grades see math largely as a male preserve, they haven’t yet made the connection that ‘because I am a girl, math is not for me.’” These findings suggest that if girls are assured early enough that they are not innately worse at math because of their sex that they will be more likely to pursue jobs in STEM fields later on since they will be less likely to suffer from stereotype threat.

You can read the entire article here.

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