Yahoo! announced this week that the company was naming Google’s Marissa Mayer as its new CEO.
Mayer remarked that she hoped more women joined the field. She was once again drawing attention to women’s underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and math-related fields (commonly abbreviated as STEM).
Experts and commentators have posited many explanations for women’s under-representation and often claim that women are simply less competent at these fields than men.
However, women are increasingly obtaining advanced STEM degrees. When women and men receive equal training, they perform equally well on STEM-based measures of competence, but many women with STEM degrees never enter the field, opting instead for the humanities.
Thus attributing underrepresentation to women’s innate incompetence isn’t just offensive, it’s not a logical explanation. Stereotype threat, however, may provide an explanation for a significant portion of the discrepancies between men and women.
What Is Stereotype Threat?
Stereotype threat is the tendency of historically oppressed groups to underperform when presented with a stereotype about their group.
For example, a man who watched a presentation about men’s inability to communicate might then become anxious about his communication skills exhibit poor communication with his wife. Similarly, women exposed to stereotypes about their ability to perform in STEM fields are more likely to perform poorly both on tests of competence and on the job.
This of course is not to say that women’s underrepresentation is caused solely by poor performance. There are many factors at play, including socialization, discrimination, and family pressures, but stereotype threat has been demonstrated in dozens of studies and almost certainly plays a role.
Exposure to Stereotypes
Women are exposed to stereotypes about their science and math competence on a regular and persistent basis. Popular commentators claim that women are innately less competent than men. Coworkers and friends may make snide comments about women’s spatial reasoning or math skills.