Women in Science, Women in Leadership
Aug 1, 2012 1:00 PM
I heard a very interesting story on NPR recently.Toni Schmader of the University of British Columbia and Matthias Mehl of the University of Arizona used recording devices to drop in on people’s conversations intermittently, 30 seconds every 12 minutes to capture insights into social interactions and human psychology. Their results are yielding provocative results about why women are dropping out of careers in science at alarming rates.
Schmader and Mehl observed that when men scientists talked with other men scientists about their work, they became more engaged and energized. In contrast, when women scientists spent a lot of time talking with male colleagues about their research, they became less engaged, less energized. This didn’t happen when women scientists talked with other women scientists or when the women talked with male scientists about non-work topics such as family or leisure activities. The NPR report explores why these differences might exist and what the consequences are. I wonder how many women are affected by the culprit they cite—stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat refers to the psychological phenomenon in which people are so worried that they might confirm a negative stereotype that their fears come true. It can happen to anyone who believes he or she is being stereotyped. In the context of women scientists, Mehl and Schmader say that a female scientist talking with a male scientist about research may start to worry about whether he might hold the stereotype that women scientists are somehow inferior. Once she has this fear, she begins to use a part of her mind to monitor the conversation, looking for signs that he might have this bias, and worrying that what she’s saying will feed into that stereotype. These thoughts can be distracting. As she becomes less attentive to the conversation at hand, she inadvertently may come across as less engaged or even as less competent. Her fears are then realized.
Women who pursue careers in science are by definition taking on non-traditional roles. I wonder whether these same kinds of fears affect women in other non-traditional roles, such as leadership in an organization. I can think of many instances where I have experienced feelings that would be characterized as stereotype threat, although I didn’t know it had a name. I suspect I’m not alone. Whether it’s gender, race, age, ethnicity, nationality or any other element of a person’s identity, stereotypes can apply, and they can hold us back. In the NPR story, one of the authors, a German man, talks about experiencing stereotype threat himself—in his case, it’s when he goes dancing with his Mexican wife in South America. I suspect that a simple awareness about stereotype threat can help us avoid falling into this self-defeating trap and, by keeping our own minds open, we can avoid stereotyping others.comments powered by Disqus