Stereotype threat is something that girls deal with throughout their lives, in professional, social, and academic settings. I am hoping to explain what stereotype threat is and looking to help facilitate conversations and provide actionable items for high schools to take in order to begin to mitigate stereotype threat within STEM courses.
What is Stereotype Threat for Girls in STEM?
Stereotype threat (ST) is when “individuals who are members of a group characterized by negative stereotypes in a particular domain perform below their actual abilities in that domain when group membership is emphasized” is something that is prevalent for girls in high school across the country. Essentially ST means that for girls who have grown up with the stereotype that they are less equipped for math and science, when reminded of this stereotype, are more likely to underperform on assessments and tests.
A research study looking at the performance of male versus female students in a year long calculus based physics course in which female students were underrepresented, showed that females that identified with the gender stereotype were associated with negative performances. These stereotypes are established in STEM classrooms, in part by:
- microagressions from their male classmates such as interrupting female students while speaking or laughing at their questions
- underrepresentation of fellow female students
These among countless other actions and scenarios can reaffirm the gender stereotypes that women don’t belong in STEM. Without being reminded of these gender stereotypes females are able to perform equally to men.
One of the primary issues that can reinforce gender stereotypes in STEM courses is the underrepresentation of females. Being one of only a handful of females in my own Advanced Physics course, it is tough to feel like you belong when there are very few like you there.
There are a handful of courses that this underrepresentation is most frequently seen, namely: Physics, Calculus, and Computer Science. Seen below is the percentage of female and male test takes for each AP exam for the past three years. Across all three years you can see a large disparity in the Calculus, Physics, and Computer Science AP test takers.
Although the AP exam takers is not necessarily representative of the entire country it does provide a good view into a large cohort of high schools. As research has shown, this underrepresentation can cause underperformance in high school girls, which can lead to a decreasing interest in STEM. This decreasing interest can be seen in the data for the Bachelors Degrees that are awarded nationally. In 2016 18.7%, 20.9%, and 42.4% of all Computer Sciences, Engineering, and Mathematic and Statistics degrees were awarded to women.
In addition to ST in high school, these gender stereotypes continue in women’s professional career. Listen to this 8 minute interview from NPR about ST in professional settings:
These statements were provided by Isabel Mehta who is an editor for Germantown Friends student run newspaper and was able to conduct these interviews for her own opinion piece on girls in STEM.
“I don’t think I feel inferior to them, but I think there’s an underlying assumption with some of the guys that we almost should be a little inferior. It’s hard to go into class knowing that’s the expectation.”
- Sammi (GFS 20′) speaking about her advanced statistics course this year, she is one of 5 girls in her class along with 11 boys. Sammi will be going to Northwestern University next fall!
“It’s the classic idea for girls that “I need help, I need someone to explain things to me because I can’t understand it on my own.” Because then, I feel really tentative to ask questions in my courses because I don’t want to confirm this idea that I don’t know what’s going on. But sometimes I actually don’t know what’s going on.”
- Maribel (GFS 20′) speaking about my experience in my Advanced Physics and Chemistry courses, as well as my two year advanced calculus course. I will be going to Middlebury College next fall!
“Girls are reprimanded more for speaking out of turn or being rude, and for boys it’s expected that they’re louder and bolder. I also think I’m more worried about what other people think of me, and I want to make sure I say the right answer if I share something, whereas guys tend to be more confident in shouting out the first idea they think of.“
- Tsega (GFS 20′) shares her experiences from her advanced statistics and biology class. Tsega will be going to Georgetown University next fall!
How Do We Combat This?
In an effort to try and mitigate ST in high school I have created this infographic as a guide to begin conversations between students, administrators, and educators about how to start correcting this issue.
How Can You Help?
You can help me by letting me know if you found this page informative and helpful? and further, if you feel like you would feel comfortable speaking with educators and administrators at your own high school about stereotype threat?
Please leave any questions below, and I have included a link to my “Works Cited” page. Thank you!
Additionally, a special thank you to Isabel Mehta who was able to give me her interviews from an article she is writing about girls in STEM for our schools newspaper!