The fifth barrier, Stereotypic Threat, is defined as individuals who underperform relative to their actual abilities when a negative-performance expectation exists as with the implicit assumption that men are better leaders than women.
Gendered assumptions that women are less able to lead than men make women vulnerable to stereotype threat when faced with leadership tasks that can potentially undermine performance and aspirations among women. Women are vulnerable to stereotypic threat in traditionally masculine domains that allege a sex-based inability.
Under the threat of confirming the group stereotype, talented, and competent individuals experience being “deskilled.” Stereotype threat can lead to stress, frustration, sadness, a reduction in mental capacity, and a decrease in motivation. This creates impaired performance, and a downward spiral of self-blame and lowered self-esteem.
Combating Stereotypic ThreatResearch supports informing potential victims about stereotype threat and providing cognitive strategies for re-framing a situation and reaffirmation. One study found that telling female course participants about stereotype threat regarding gender and math ability eliminated women’s under-performance compared to men. In another study, female participants told to work against gender stereotypes on negotiation performed as well as men and better than controls. Providing external reasons for anxiety on math tests reduced the impact of stereotype threat and improved female students’ math scores.
In a study specific to leadership, participants were exposed to gender-stereotypic TV commercials, and then given a choice between being a leader or supporter. Women participants became vulnerable to stereotypic threat that led women to avoid leadership roles in favor of supportive roles. However, the researchers created “an identity-safe” environment as an intervention by including a sentence confirming that research indicates no gender difference in ability to perform as a leader or problem solver (the more subordinate role). The inclusion of such a statement eliminated the vulnerability to stereotypic threat despite exposure to threatening situational cues in the environment.
Our evaluation of three cohorts of early career scientists provided strong evidence that teaching an evidence-based curriculum increased leadership self-efficacy, the “I can do it” attitude. Our results also suggested that course participation empowered these women to take strategic actions to identify and reduce the influence of gender bias in their professional lives.
You can too. It may not seem possible, but this works if you work it.
- What messages “threaten” your career?
- Where do you think they came from?