A comment I heard recently made me think about the consequences of living with stereotype threat. We were discussing the ways that stereotype threat affects kids. One woman said that she had not experienced bias because of her gender and that she had been very successful in a male-dominated field without any anxiety about being a woman. Now, while this may be true for this particular person, research has shown us that for most people, being under stereotype threat is anxiety provoking. If you are aware that you are different from most of the people around you, social psychology research tells us that you will notice that and it will impact you in some way.
What is interesting is that quite often when people are showing physiological symptoms of anxiety, such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure, they will not report being anxious. Strangely enough, we humans are not always the best at identifying what emotions we are feeling at any given moment. We interpret our emotional arousal in different ways, sometimes to protect ourselves emotionally.
In experiments studying the effects of stereotype threat on anxiety levels, subjects often reported little anxiety, and yet their physiological symptoms of anxiety were off the charts. In fact, living under stereotype threat has been shown to have long-term health consequences, especially for high achievers who feel the consistent need to prove themselves against the stereotype.
Other research has shown that dealing with stereotype threat can spill over into other areas of our lives and impact things such as aggression, eating behaviors, and attention. Negative performance stereotypes can even impact a person’s ability to learn information in the first place. For example, women who experienced stereotype threat had difficulty learning new mathematical rules and operations and their performance was reduced.
By the age of 9, girls are already internalizing stereotypes about their performance in the STEM areas, and this leads many of them to drop out of STEM intensive academic programs, even if they are highly capable. These stereotypes change a girl’s mind about what she can do, about who she can be. That’s a vital thing for us to understand.
These findings are important because they tell us that living with a stereotype that threatens who you think you are, for example a girl who is good at math who is consistently presented with the idea that girls are not good at math, has both short and long-term effects. Not only do negative stereotypes impact the girl’s performance at the moment she experiences them, but also they actually have the potential to impair her ability to learn the material. And, if she loves math and chooses to pursue a career in a math related field, she may face long-term health consequences as a result of the stress of living under sustained stereotype threat.
This is why the perpetuation of gender stereotypes is not healthy for our children. The problem with television shows, movies, advertisements, and products marketed to children that promote narrow gender stereotypes is that they serve to reinforce and further promote a very narrow range of interests and activities as “for” girls or boys.
Look at the difference between this commercial for LEGO Friends compared to this commercial for LEGO City. Notice the words that are used for each, the focus on action and building versus passive primping. This is just one example of gender stereotypes that are rampantly promoted in children’s entertainment. Then there are the products that make jokes about girl’s math or academic abilities. There are the movies and television shows that show boys as lazy slackers or aggressive loud mouths, or if they are smart, as socially awkward. Neither gender wins in this equation.
It is very simple for corporations to say, “But that’s what girls/boys want! We’re just meeting a market demand.” But the truth is that when we consistently promote gender stereotypes, we make it very difficult for kids to overcome them. And when they attempt to fight against the stereotype, they are likely to face long-term consequences both emotionally and physically.
I’m not saying that boys and girls have no unique characteristics or interests as a whole. But when we offer only one narrow idea of what it can mean to be male or female, we restrict that range even further! Is this really what we want for our children? Isn’t it time to have a bigger vision for who our kids can be? Isn’t it time to stop promoting limiting ideas of what it means to be female or male and allow our children the freedom to be creative and imaginative in their play?
Rydell, R.J., Rydell, M.T., & Boucher K.L. (2010). The effect of negative performance stereotypes on learning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 883-896.
Steffens, M.C., Jelenec, P., & Noack, P. (2010). On the leaky math pipeline: Comparing implicit math-gender stereotypes and math withdrawal in female and male children and adolescents. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 947-963.
Steele, C. M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi and other clues to how stereotypes affect us. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.