Have you ever walked into a room and become immediately aware that something about you makes you stand out in the crowd, makes you different, might lead others to believe certain things to be true about you before you’ve even met? Maybe it’s your gender, your race, your height, or your weight. There are certain parts of our identity that we may not think about that often, but in certain situations, these parts of us are used by others to identify us as being a part of a certain group. And those parts of our identity also tend to make us very self-conscious of what others think they know about us. There are stereotypes, both good and bad characteristics, which are attributed to us because of different parts of our identities. This isn’t to say that we believe those things about ourselves. In fact, very often we know it to be untrue, but the truth remains that we are very, very aware that others are thinking that they understand something to be true about us. For example, tall people are often considered to be leaders while short people aren’t generally seen as leaders. As a tall or short person, when you enter a group, you know good and well that you’re going to have to either confirm or break that stereotype about your height. You know that it’s likely that the people in the group have formed ideas about who you are based on that characteristic.
We’ve been talking a lot lately about how marketers for toy companies tend to set up their marketing by gender, and much of the marketing promotes gender stereotypes. For example, in this commercial for the LEGO City line, all of the minifigures appear to be males and the talk is of crooks escaping and having to recapture them. There’s information about what you can do with the set and a semi-story line about the crooks and police. In this commercial for the LEGO Friends line, characters are introduced by name and talk about chilling with the girls and going to the salon. Some building is shown, but not talked about.
Both of these commercials represent common gender stereotypes that are seen in a lot of marketing and media that targets children. The stereotype for boys is that they are loud, active, and rough. The stereotype for girls is that they are nurturing and care about appearance. A stereotype in our culture at large is that females are not as good at math, science, and engineering as males are. You may wonder what that last one has to do with the first ones I mentioned. Let me expand on that.
The truth is that the gendered marketing that we see directed at children promotes the stereotypes that girls are more concerned with beauty and relationships than they are with achievement. Unfortunately, we even see products marketed to girls that say things like “Allergic to Algebra” or “I’m too pretty to do math.”
But those are just silly products and ads, right? How could they make any difference in what a child really believes about themselves and their abilities? If they have good parents who teach them otherwise, isn’t that the important thing? Actually, when we study social psychology, which is the way that people behave in social settings, we see that media and marketing that promote gender stereotypes DO matter. They take an idea that may be common in the culture and promote it to young children, thus imprinting it even further as a part of their identity. We develop our identities based on what we know about who we are not just from an individual perspective, but what it means in the context in which we live to be a person of our race, gender, social class, region, mental health status, and so forth. These are called identity contingencies. These are those things about our identities that we talked about earlier; the things that we know will lead others to believe certain things about us.
What’s interesting about identity contingencies, is that they are based on our social identity, not what we think of ourselves but what we believe others think about us. Many of these contingencies are based on stereotypes. We ourselves don’t have to believe or accept the stereotype to be forced to deal with the contingencies; it’s enough for others to believe it. Or, in the case of stereotype threat, it’s enough for us to even be aware that someone else might believe a certain stereotype about us.
The research on stereotype threat comes out of the work of Claude M. Steele and his colleagues. The research that they’ve done has firmly established the fact that when a stereotype exists about our social identity and we are aware of it, that awareness alone can lead to changes in our academic performance, our behaviors, and our success.
One great example in Steele’s research involves women and math. He and his research team wanted to figure out what was behind the lack of women in math and science careers. Was it, as some have proposed, that women are just biologically not as good at math as men, or were there other forces at work? What Steele and his colleagues found was that when they gave high-achieving math students of both sexes difficult math problems, the women tended to do worse simply because, as Steele believed, they were functioning under the pressure of worrying that they would confirm that stereotype that women aren’t good at math. This worry took some of the intellectual energy that they needed to actually do the math problems and thus inhibited their performance. On the other hand, when the researchers conducted the study in the same way but told the women before hand that on this particular test men and women scored evenly, the women performed at the same level as the men! When the women were free from the concern that they might confirm a negative stereotype about their sex, they were able to concentrate fully on solving the difficult problem.
Research also tells us those girls who are exposed more often to sexualized media depictions of women tend to perform poorly academically. After heavy exposure to this type of media, young women will often indicate that certain career options, such as those in the math and science fields, are not open to them. Mind you, before seeing the media, many had said they might want to pursue those same careers. In other studies, directly after exposure to this type of media, college aged students performed more poorly on academic tests than they had previously! There is a direct connection with how young women view their academic and intellectual abilities and their exposure to sexualized media.
What’s interesting about Steele’s research is that in some ways it goes against the American cultural belief that we can just believe in ourselves and prove others wrong. You see, the women who did most poorly on these tests were amazing mathematicians. They already knew this about themselves, they had already proven it. In fact, Steele’s research has shown that people who are the highest achievers are the ones whose performance tends to suffer the most from stereotype threat! Give that hard math test to a college aged woman who isn’t a high achiever in math, and she’ll do poorly whether she thinks the test is biased against her or not, because she doesn’t have the skills to succeed. But for the student who does have the skills to succeed, the pressure of trying to respond to a stereotype threat is enough to undermine their performance.
So you see, gendered marketing that promotes stereotypes does matter. It’s all well and good to say, “Oh, girls who love engineering/math/science will still play with all of the LEGO sets/science kits” or what have you. But stereotype threat assures us that these girls who have high achievement and high levels of interest in the STEM fields will continue to underachieve when they are constantly bombarded with stereotyped messages that say that girls should not be interested in these fields or activities. That’s why we are asking LEGO and other toy manufacturers to stop promoting gender stereotypes to children. It affects their performance and their vision for what they can be.
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