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  • Scott Murphey

Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance - A very impactful research paper on my thinking.

The citation to the work and it's abstract is below:

Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance

Citation Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women's math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 4–28. Link to the paper here:;jsessionid=AD94BAED2F4FF106E8C4B5A20FE024EA?doi= Abstract When women perform math, unlike men, they risk being judged by the negative stereotype that women have weaker math ability. We call this predicament stereotype threat and hypothesize that the apprehension it causes may disrupt women's math performance. In Study 1 we demonstrated that the pattern observed in the literature that women underperform on difficult (but not easy) math tests was observed among a highly selected sample of men and women. In Study 2 we demonstrated that this difference in performance could be eliminated when we lowered stereotype threat by describing the test as not producing gender differences. However, when the test was described as producing gender differences and stereotype threat was high, women performed substantially worse than equally qualified men did. A third experiment replicated this finding with a less highly selected population and explored the mediation of the effect. The implication that stereotype threat may underlie gender differences in advanced math performance, even those that have been attributed to genetically rooted sex differences, is discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2017 APA, all rights reserved)


Quick Take Away for Teachers 1. Admit to your own biases and stereotypes and understand that everyone has them and is influenced by them. 2. Make it a point to address stereotypes in your teaching. 3. Make Clear statements that counter negative stereotypes 4. Create a safe environment for students to discuss any issues or fears they may have regarding bias or stereotypes.


My Thoughts:

"being in a situation where one faces judgment based on societal stereotypes about one’s group, an experience we refer to as ‘stereotype threat.’ "

This is one of the first articles' I read as I really started to get into academic research on learning and education. I think it is one that has had a profound impact on me as well. For me this article goes way beyond Women and Math. This idea that our students are affected by just the perceived stereotype that people might have for them. And I don't' think that enough consideration is given to the massive effect that this can actually have in a school or education setting. First off I feel like many stereotypes or known biases are just too easily brushed aside by us and individuals. "Yeah but I'm not racist" or "I know some people believe that but not me". That is our first mistake. A stereotype, like the one we discuss here, is usually so well-ingrained in our society, it is hard to know or see where it seeps out. In many cases, you may not think you are propagating it, but you are. For example, I remember one time soon after reading this paper I wanted to use the phrase, "cry like a girl" in a sarcastic and silly way with my students. I had done it before and everyone laughs, but it hit me as I looked around, that is me just subtly adding one more layer of validity to the fact that girls are emotional and boys are not and that there is something wrong or silly about that. The real deal is that we all harbor racist and biased thoughts and notions. Some are more prevalent than others, but our first and maybe most important step is to accept that. Then through acceptance, you can take a critical and close look at your behaviors and start to change them. In the paper, the authors say, "In the present research, our central proposition is this: when a stereotype about one’s group indicts an important ability, one’s performance in situations where that ability can be judged comes under an extra pressure—that of possibly being judged by or self-fulfilling the stereotype—and this extra pressure may interfere with performance." This is vitally important for teachers who are role models to every child that they interact with, their actions and words are seen and recorded by sensitive developing eyes and ears on a scale beyond other people on a minute by minute basis. You only start to consider this when you put you take a second out of your day to look around at all the students that come within your proximity. Each one of them has been bombarded by both blatant and subtle messages that are slowly fighting for a place in their foundation as a person. Then you ask yourself, how are my words and actions being perceived and translated by this person. Chances are they are seeing your biases and stereotypes, especially if it is relevant to them in some way, as clear as day, even if you are not. All of this seems overwhelming and stressful, as well it should. But the reality is teachers are in a position of great power. They will affect more people than they can even guess at and in ways, they don't even know. It is vitally important they deliver do their best to be clear and outspoken with students consistently when it comes to stereotypes and biases of any kind. As this paper discusses and many others, one of the easiest and best ways to counter this reverse stereotype threat that can greatly affect your student's performance is to talk to them about it. Discuss it and whenever possible debunk it. Create spaces where students feel comfortable asking you questions about stereotypes. Explain to them where they come from, why people have them, how they can be reinforced subtly, and how they can also be very slow to change. As for this specific topic of this paper stereotype threat for women in math, it has dramatically changed the way I teach math class and I through reactions of my students I know It has really impacted the girls in my classes for good. Since I usually work with smaller children 9 and 10 years old, many of them are still very innocent about it. But I can see through sideways looks and other comments that gender stereo types are already there. I make sure to promote math to everyone, but especially make it clear to the girls in my class how important math is and promote their successes. I really start to see this stereotype get to problematic stages starting in 5th grade. Again it is subtle and can take the form of, "I'm just not interested in math" or something like that. But just basic psychology tells us that we probably won't like what we don't think we are good at, or what we are fearful of. Either way addressing stereotypes of all kinds has become an important part of my teaching and I think has dramatically improved my relationships with my students and my ability to create better learning environments.

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