Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Does this pink miniskirt make me look stupid? Stereotype Threat and Kids

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.

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

Campbell, S.M. & Collear, M.L. (2009). Stereotype threat and gender differences on performance of a visuospational task. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33, 437–444.

Cheryn, S., Plaut, V.C., Davies, P.G., & Steele, C.M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 1045-1060.

Fredrickson, B.L, Noll, S.M., Roberts, T., Quinn, D.M., & Twenge, J.M. (1998). That Swimsuit becomes you: Sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating, and math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 269-284.

Gapinski, K.D., Brownell, K.D., & LaFrance, M. (2003). Body objectification and “fat talk”: Effects on emotion, motivation and cognitive performance. Sex Roles, 48,  377-388.

Keller, J. (2007). Stereotype threat in the classroom setting:  The interactive effect of domain identification, task difficulty, and stereotype threat on students’ maths performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 323-338.

Murphy, M.C., Steele, C. M. & Gross, J.J. (2007). Signaling Threat: How situational cues affect women in math, science, and engineering settings.  Psychological Science, 18, 879-885.

Steele, C. M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi and other clues to how stereotypes affect us. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.

16 comments on “Does this pink miniskirt make me look stupid? Stereotype Threat and Kids

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  10. Malcolm
    January 22, 2012

    Hi Jennifer,
    Read your blog, thanks.
    “Suggestion” can influence girls more than boys.
    Also, if a girls “wants” to be a girl, she may prefer the boys outperform her.
    This might be worth a read…

    Click to access The%20Tacit%20Conspiracy%20by%20Eugene%20Halliday%20-%20tutorial.pdf

    Thanks for your blog

    • Christian Ruggeri
      October 3, 2017

      Sorry for commenting on an old conversation. Well said, Malcolm. I liked this blog post, Jennifer.

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  12. naomi
    January 18, 2012

    Jennifer yes lets keep our children out of a box and not stereotype. A useful piece of research that shows us what we know a lot about yet many companies and people are still using stereotypes.

  13. Amy Jussel (@ShapingYouth)
    January 17, 2012

    Brilliant examples. I taught a media literacy session on “Squashing Stereotypes in Media Messaging” for the Girls for a Change summit a few years back using some of the techniques in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink.”

    From the write up/visualization exercise: “Close your eyes & take this pop quiz: What does a female banker look like? A woman CEO? A girl at your school in AP calculus? A biotech scientist shopping at the mall? Did that last one throw you? —In a quick snap we’ve pre-set our brains to media myths & formulas, pre-judging with pop culture images & icons. You’re about to flip those perceptions & realities upside down in fun, hands-on games that will give you skill sets for life and tell you a lot about yourself in the process…” etc etc

    I offered myself on the sacrificial alter of judgment uncorking the session with the icebreaker, ‘ok, who was I in high school?’ as they proceeded to falter fabulously pigeon-holing me into Barbie/blonde-isms, as I sprung on them, “what if I told you I was a MINORITY…how could that be?” Asking them to think it through, ditch perceptions rethink the possibility that the stories we tell externally and internally can yield surprisingly surreal commonalities, opportunities for deep engagement, collaboration, understanding, etc but those dang stereotypes (esp when pre-perceived in ‘pink/blonde/fluff-n-stuff’ get in the way of the reality, so we have to ‘retrain’ the brain to cut through the clutter of misperceptions from the get go.

    Your “identity contingencies'” came into play in my world just yesterday when my teen was shopping for high-heeled shoes for winter formal…I won’t go there, but let’s just say the stereotypes were flinging wild and free, so ‘does this pink miniskirt make me look stupid?’ resonated strongly this morning. Girls need the opp to “take back” our mindshare in what’s being marketed as universally ‘appealing’…

    …Especially when trends ‘dumb down’ and limit girls’ movement, motion, and options (er, you should’ve seen the mass marketing of platforms w/5-6″ sparkly stilettos) not to mention CHOICES (there were virtually no shoe selections that weren’t uber-arched-on tiptoes Barbie podiatrist fails) —They all looked like Kardashian audition ensembles with trash and flash social norming of what’s ‘pretty/sexy/hot’ etc–Just saying those stereotypes begin by limiting brains with ‘girly girl assemble-only Legos’ and segue to bods to be ‘looked at’ rather than be functional, healthy and usable…

    Teen had a great reply though, “meh, doesn’t matter what ones I buy, I’m just gonna kick off the shoes and DANCE.” You go, girl. Great post, Jennifer…

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 17, 2012

      Amy, I love those ideas that you used in working with kids to help them become more aware of the stereotypes! My next post on this topic will be about how we can help our kids learn not to be sidetracked by stereotype threat. It’s so important for them to to be able to acknowledge stereotypes and then move forward without letting stereotypes distract from their achievement and success. And thanks for sharing the story of the shoes, I know just what you mean having shopped for my 12 year old who wears a size 7. Shoes in the little girls department don’t fit anymore, but no way will she be wobbling around on those 4 inch heels either! Marketers and media need to stop pigeonholing girls and boys and allow them more freedom of choice. Bottom line. People always say, “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it” which is fine and well, but finding alternatives is nearly impossible. That’s where we have to start demanding more from companies and supporting those companies whole-heartedly who do give us healthy alternatives.

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