Women can’t be engineers!

In her hilarious yet sobering blog post, aspiring Queen of Bioinformatics, Emily Olorin, shares some hard-won wisdom on combating the insidious menace posed by stereotype threat.

Emily Olorin

“Asians are bad at English.”

“White people can’t play basketball.”

“Women aren’t as smart as men.”

Ever heard one of these before? I’d wager you have. Want to take a guess at the connection between them?

Yep, they’re all stereotypes. Stereotypes are, of course, widely held but often incorrect ideas about groups of people. Numerous stereotypes exist in the world today and stereotyping can have a pretty devastating effect on you, your friends and your marks. This has a name. It’s called Stereotype Threat.

What is stereotype threat?

At its core, stereotype threat is a worry that you, as an individual, will confirm a negative stereotype about yourself, as part of a group. I was once told, ‘Oh, women can’t do engineering’ just before an exam, which I ended up doing pretty badly in. This is a perfect example of stereotype threat in action.

But what actually happens when someone says something like that?

In a nutshell, being reminded of the stereotype leads to performance pressure which interferes with the task performance. In my case, as I walked into the exam thinking ‘I’ve got to prove women can be engineers!’ I was diverting my precious brain power towards the stereotype and away from the task in hand.

As it turns out, there’s a difference between these two. Also it’s pi plus C, of course.

What’s really frustrating about this, is that you don’t even have to believe the stereotype to fall prey to it. I know I’m perfectly good at mathematics, but I can still be thrown from my metaphorical high horse by a loose-tongued ignoramus!

As you can see, all is not equal in this test (Results from the Steele & Aronson experiment)

Ok, where’s the science to back this up?

The seminal experiment in stereotype threat is the Steele and Aronson (1995) experiment. They gave black and white students a test in verbal reasoning to test the stereotype that ‘black Americans are intellectually inferior to white Americans’. How did they invoke stereotype threat, you ask? One little question: ‘Please indicate your ethnicity’.

And the result of that one little question? Black students performed worse, whereas white students were unaffected.

Studies have found other impacts too. Disengagement from the area in question is also super common as the constant pressure of negative stereotyping lowers peoples’ excitement and motivation to continue in the field they’re ostensibly bad at. This leads to less representation in the field, fewer role models, and more people spouting the stereotype. Not the greatest outcome. 

Physiology interlude

Now, you may have got to this point thinking that all this stereotype threat stuff is in your head. Unfortunately, you’re only half right. In reality, it’s deep down in the rest of you, too.

Physiologically speaking, it’s very similar to a moment of panic. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your muscles tense. You may start to sweat. Worries start to niggle at the back of your mind. You try to suppress it but you become distracted and boom! You’ve lost your ability to concentrate. 

So, what kinds of things trigger it?

As we’ve seen above, indicating identity on a form (such as ethnicity, gender or language spoken at home) can trigger stereotype threat. But what else can set it off?

Let’s use an example: Say I’m a female mathematics student about to sit a test. I’m sitting in my tute which, aside from me, is composed entirely of men. For some strange reason, there’s a mish mash of Star Trek (original series) posters, and 1940s advertising on the walls. Then the tutor walks in. The tutor is, as you probably guessed, male. He stands at the front of the room and says, “Women are so bad at maths, am I right? I don’t even know how we got one in the class this year. You guys will do way better in this test. You’re good at maths, you guys.” Then proceeds to hand out the papers. 

If you haven’t seen this movie, they go back in time to save the whales. Yes, I’m serious.

So, literally everything above is problematic, but what’s explicitly wrong? (If you want to try and guess, there are five different things that are likely to kick me off my competence horse. It’s a pretty skittish beast.)

If you’re not keen to play the guessing game, here are the answers:

  1. Explicit statement of the stereotype (in this case, women are bad at maths).
  2. Under-representation (a solo woman doing a math test in the presence of men).
  3. Alienating features of the physical environment (here, Star Trek posters. NB: I picked Star Trek because I can’t watch it without labelling Kirk as ‘Captain Patriarchy and repeatedly cringing. Sorry to all who like it).
  4. Viewing gender stereotyped ads (here, the 1940s ads which do a good job of supporting gender stereotypes, but an awful job of making me feel at home).
  5. The person administering the test is an outgroup member (here, our male tutor)

How can I ameliorate the threat?

Despite all my talk of doom and gloom, and falling from horses, all is not lost! There are ways to ensure that stereotype threat doesn’t trigger and there are ways to minimise it if it does.

Track one is to increase a sense of belonging in the group. This can be done with role models, diversity in advertising, verbal praise and the removal of heavily gendered items. Reverse everything in my maths test scenario (above), and you’re golden.

How can I do my household duties without a man to help me open jars!

The second track is to shift focus. Rather than promoting marks as the be-all and end-all of a course, encourage growth and learning. For example, when people phrase intelligence as a learnt skill rather than a fixed one, people are more inclined to try harder, take risks and ultimately learn more.

Finally, the third track is to normalise struggle. I remember being told at the beginning of uni that the first year is generally crap, but it gets better after that, and it really helped me get through. I pass this on to all the first years I mentor, and am surprised at how many of them are shocked and reassured in knowing that.

Reframing anxiety into something positive can help as well; something as simple as saying ‘It’s pretty normal to be nervous before an exam, and it may even help you to do better!’ Can minimise the effects of the anxiety itself, and lead to better results.

The struggle is real. I have been that corgi so many times.

Finally, the key that links all of the above is education. When you’re aware of stereotype threat being triggered, it’s possible to calm yourself down. As well as this, it’s important to call people out and help minimise the effects on future groups. A win for all!

Emily Olorin is a 4th year Bioinformatics Engineering student - UNSW Computer Science and Engineering.   

Further reading

There’s a lot of research on this topic and here are a few key favourites. Don’t worry, the papers are definitely less dry than some of the ones in engineering!

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