Saturday, February 07, 2009

"Ma'am, women suck at math" = woman actually sucking at math

When people are threatened by a negative stereotype they think applies to them, they can be subtly biased to live out that stereotype.
So says an article in the Washington Post titled How a Self-Fulfilling Stereotype Can Drag Down Performance.
Dozens of field experiments have found that reminding African Americans and Latinos about their race before administering academic tests, or telling them that the tests are measures of innate intelligence, can hurt their performance compared with minorities who were not reminded about race and not told that the results reflect inherent ability.


The same phenomenon applies to women's performance in mathematics. Reminding women about their gender or telling them that men generally outperform women on math tests invariably depresses the women's scores. Similarly, telling test-takers that people of Asian descent score better than other students depresses the performance of white men.

The findings of these studies seem to have merely quantified what we intuitively feel - when we feel uncomfortable in a situation or feel diffident we tend to under perform. This particular set of studies happens to have focused on societal stereotypes as a cause for the discomfort or diffidence. This has implications not only for school settings and workplace settings, but for parents as well. Not exposing a child to negative stereotypes might be something we all do in the normal course anyway, but now we know this actually affects the bottom line.

But of course, not all stereotypes are equal. There are the negative kind, there are the harmless kind, and then there are the positive kind. What I want to know is this - does reinforcing positive stereotypes affect performance the other way? Do people actually perform better than they otherwise would have if they are reminded of the positive stereotype? It seems safe to assume so, but I wonder if the studies looked into it.

I also wonder what this means for new immigrants. If you are new to a society, it is probable that you are not exposed to the prevalent stereotypes. So for a while immigrants might escape the ill effects of negative stereotypes, until they figure out the lay of the land, but they might also miss out on any positive stereotypes.

P.S. Shankar Vendantam writes an interesting column in the Post called Department of Human Behavior in addition to other articles. Always something to tickle your brain, if you are interested.


Kavi said...

Stereotypes will be around. Labeling is the easiest and most convenient thing for the mind to do. With the amount of inputs our brains get...some form of labeling is bound to happen !

So, it is bound to cause some level of anxiety, depression etc. If you are expected to be one way and you are not !

But women and math..well, thats something that i havent heard of. An image of Shakuntala Devi comes up before me and i am all in awe !


Anonymous said...

"Do people actually perform better than they otherwise would have if they are reminded of the positive stereotype?"
When I first came to the US as a 12 year old that regularly failed math classes 'back home', I didn't know how math classes would be her until I enrolled at the local junior high and most everyone thought I was a genius because I was India. I often stood first in math class, much to my parents' astonishment. And of course, when we went back to India, where I was the class 'duffer' I went back to failing at math regularly. This is just one example but now I'm really curious to know if 'positive' stereotypes really have a positive effect.

Anonymous said...

Ok, Ive made way too many typos in the previous comment....sigh.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Siri, what a fantastic story! Thanks for sharing it. I'm so tickled that there is such a thing!

Kavi, women being weak in math and science is quite prevalent in the US.

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