Stereotype threat in the workplace

This is a slightly edited copy of a blog post I wrote at work.  We’re encouraged to blog about stuff, so I decided to blog about work related feminism – because why not.

I first learnt about stereotype threat a couple of years ago while reading the book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine, an Associate Professor at Melbourne Business School, Australia, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia.  Dr Fine explained stereotype threat in an interview following the release of her book as follows:

When we’re trying to do something that’s traditionally regarded as being the specialty of the other sex – for example, maths or understanding another person’s thoughts and feelings – we do so under the cloud of ‘stereotype threat’. Gender stereotypes are primed in our mind, and this interferes with our ability and interest in the task. There’s a growing body of fascinating research into this phenomenon, trying to unravel how and why it happens. But what I find most striking are the studies that show what happen when you blow the cloud of stereotype threat away. You can do this, for example, simply by telling women that on the maths test they’re about to take, women do just as well as men. And when you do, women perform significantly better than you’d expect from their course or test scores. As Catherine Good and her colleagues have put it, dispersing stereotype threat unleashes mathematical potential in women that is usually suppressed.

In another interview Dr Fine added that stereotype threat:

… refers to the difficulty for people who belong to a group stereotypically seen as being not very good at a particular thing they’re trying to do. For a woman doing a math test, she has an acquired stereotype threat that if you do badly, people are going to judge you because you’re a woman and that you’re going to confirm what everyone already “knew,” that women are bad at math. It creates a whole host of harmful psychological effects in people’s minds. And psychologists have discovered if you make gender seem not relevant to a task, then men and women perform equally well. Right now, when it comes to women in traditional male domains, it’s like a track star running into a headwind — their performance is impeded.

Caryn J. Block, Sandy M. Koch, Benjamin E. Liberman, Tarani J. Merriweather, and Loriann Roberson published an academic paper, “Contending With Stereotype Threat at Work: A Model of Long-Term Responses“, looking at the long-term impact of stereotype threat in the workplace.  Block et al (2011, pg 573) state:

Thus, when an individual encounters a situation where there is a negative stereotype about his or her group, that individual will experience heightened arousal, resulting in fewer cognitive resources available for performing the task. These cognitive resources are tied up in self-regulatory thoughts such as task-related worry and negative thoughts about one’s own performance. This can result in a cycle of lowered performance and lowered expectations for performance in this domain.

Block et al (2011) are concerned that the longer someone experiences stereotype threat, the greater the impact on their self-esteem, and the more likely they are to feel “discouraged and depressed if they are unable to meet their goals” (pg 578-579).  Stereotype threat can lead to individuals feeling that they have to prove that they are not like the stereotype and work at disassociating themselves from their social identity group, which may be a short-term fix, but not one that can be sustained long-term without negative effects (Block et al 2011).

Block et al (2011) do suggest that there are ways to combat stereotype threat in the workplace that will help individuals with combating the negative effects of it.  Two of the main strategies focus on building resilience and finding positive ways to identify with your group (pg 584):

Collective Action Another strategy used in resilience is seeking to change the context so that it is more inclusive for those who share one’s identity through collective action (Roberts, 2005). There are many contextual factors that create the conditions for stereotype threat, such as skewed demographics and a pressure to assimilate to the dominant culture or buy into workplace norms (Steele et al., 2002). When individuals realize that they are not alone in contending against negative stereotypes, they may choose to join with others in an effort to change the context. These group-level strategies consist of engaging in collective action and social change for the betterment of the group’s welfare. Many large corporations have employee network and affinity groups that provide social support, developmental opportunities, and advocacy for women, people of color, and LGBT employees. The National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program for the advancement of women in science and engineering careers has a national agenda that serves to change the context for women scientists by increasing representation and retention of women in science, fostering an environment that will result in leadership among women and shifting institutional cultural norms that are more inclusive.

Redefining criteria for success. A further strategy used in response to stereotype threat when resilient is to redefine one’s own criteria for success at work. This involves establishing what success means on one’s own terms, not based on others’ standards for evaluation or upward progression (Steele et al., 2002). It incorporates shifting priorities to what one values and choosing to acknowledge that as a standard by which to measure success.

The good news for my workplace is that they support and actively encourage employee network groups such as Women in Technology and an LGBTI network.  They promotes diversity as a positive attribute within the company, recognising that a diverse company that is as diverse as the population base it operates in, is an overall positive and that supporting employees to feel that they belong and are valued results in higher productivity and loyalty. Their support of employee network and affinity groups reduces overall stereotype threat for those employees who are affected by it.  The other programs that my employer has in place, such as supporting women in senior technical and people manager positions also significantly reduces the effects of stereotype threat.

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