Consuming images: How television commercials that elicit stereotype threat can restrain women academically and professionally
Three studies investigated whether stereotype threat might arise from exposure to stereotype-confirming messages in television advertisements. In Experiment 1, male and female undergraduates highly-identified with math viewed a set of six television commercials that had aired on national broadcasts. Half of the students saw a set where two of the commercials were stereotypic of women (one portraying a woman so excited about an acne product that she bounced with joy on her bed and another showing a woman excitedly anticipating eating brownies made with a new mix), and the other half saw two counter-stereotypic commercials (one showing a woman exhibiting detailed knowledge of automotive engineering and another depicting a woman speaking intelligently about her concerns regarding health care). After viewing these commercials, participants completed a difficult math test and a measure of stereotype activation. Although both men and women in the stereotypic commercial condition exhibited greater activation of female stereotypes, only women showed a difference in math performance. Men and women performed equally well on the math test in the counter-stereotypic commercial condition, but women performed more poorly than men in the stereotypic commercial condition. Women's math performance was mediated by the accessibility of stereotype-related thoughts. Experiment 2 allowed male and female participants to choose the types of items they would complete after viewing sets of stereotypic or neutral television commercials. Men were not affected by the television commercials in terms of their selection of items related to math or verbal ability. However, women were less likely to attempt math items, and more likely to attempt verbal items, after viewing the stereotypic advertisements, and their performance on the math items was worse following the stereotypic compared with the neutral ads. In Experiment 3, women and men indicated their interest in pursuing various academic majors and careers after viewing the stereotypic or neutral ads. Whereas men's preferences were not affected, after viewing stereotypic commercials, women's preferences for pursuing verbal domains increased and their interest in pursuing quantitative domains decreased. These studies show that exposure to realistic materials endorsing gender stereotypes can increase stereotype threat as reflected in poorer domain performance and reduced interest in domain-related activities and interests.