Stereotype threat impairs ability building: Effects on test preparation among women in science and technology

This article investigates the relationship between stereotype threat and test preparation in four studies. Study 1 established the existence of gender-based STEM stereotypes among a sample of German workers aged 16-75 (N = 1,058) who indicated via online questionnaires that most people assume that men have a learning advantage in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics domains. Participants also reported that most people assume that women learn better than men. Study 2 examined how female students at an Austrian university (N = 40) were affected by stereotype threat when their task was gather information and take notes on what they have learned. Participants first read a story that focused on gender differences (stereotype threat) or an articles negating the validity of gender stereotypes in STEM (gender stereotype negation). For the note-taking task, participants were also asked to look up information concerning 10 STEM-relevant keywords and to take notes on them. The quality of notes was rated by two independent raters, and analyses showed that students in the stereotype threat condition produced lower quality notes. Study 3 attempted to conceptually replicate Study 2 with female undergraduates at a German university (N = 79) who varied in the strength of their identification with STEM. These students were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the first condition, participants were told that the purpose of the study was to investigate why men perform better than women on certain tasks and to indicate their gender (stereotype threat). In the second condition, participants were informed that the study examined differences between universities and they were asked to indicate their age (control). Following the manipulation, participants listened to a podcast about physics and were told to take notes that would be most helpful in preparing for an exam on the material discussed. Analyses of note quality showed that he impact of stereotype threat was strongest for those who reported high domain identification. Women with the strongest STEM identity produced the lowest quality notes under stereotype threat. Study 4 examined whether stereotype threat might affect the ability to distinguish high- from low-quality notes, a skill central to test preparation. Female students from different majors (N = 88) were told that men have better learning abilities in STEM (stereotype threat), were given no information about gender differences (control), or told that men have worse learning abilities in math and science (counter-stereotype condition). Four encyclopedia entries and notes regarding those entries of varying quality were provided to the participants, who judged the quality of each set of notes. Findings showed that only women under stereotype threat failed to make different quality judgments between low- and high-quality notes. Overall, these results suggest that stereotype threat not only impairs capacity to demonstrate ability in testing contexts but also can harm behaviors related to the development of that ability.

Appel, M., Kronberger, N., & Aronson, J. (2011). Stereotype threat impairs ability building: Effects on test preparation among women in science and technology. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 904-913.

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