What is a Stereotype Threat and why is it Important?

Nov 29, 2021

Stereotype Threat (ST; Steele & Aronson, 1995) is a term used to describe the unconscious anxiety created when we are concerned that others may view us using a stereotype for the group to which we belong. It is not necessary that we believe the stereotype about our group(s), only that we know of the stereotype. Concerned that a stereotype may be used to judge us, we use up cognitive resources, and may change our behaviour so as not to confirm the stereotype. This drain on cognitive resources can harm our work and assessment performance.

Given the nature of ST it is unsurprising that some groups are more vulnerable to it than others. For example, ST may harm the performance in ethnic groups stereotyped as academically under-performing. It has also been shown to impact those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds where stereotypes exist about capability or education. It can affect White groups when faced with the stereotype of superior Asian performance in math or create an anxiety about being seen with the stereotype of being ‘racist.’

Within a stereotyped group, some people may be more vulnerable to the impact of ST than others, especially if that individual identifies strongly with their own group.

ST is thought to be most active when we:

  • cannot hide our group membership (e.g. ethnicity, gender, accent, age);
  • are anxious that the stereotype may actually be true about the groups to which we belong;
  • are more anxious that the stereotype may actually be true about us;
  • are more anxious that we as individuals may be judged with the stereotype; and/or
  • are more anxious that our groups may be judged by the stereotypes of others.

IMPACT

ST may impact our performance at work and in formal assessment.

  • ST can hamper preparation for assessment/promotion, as the person may be preparing themselves for failure.
  • Individuals may degrade their assessment or workplace performance as cognitive resources are diverted to deal with the ST.
  • STs are more likely to impact high-performing candidates/employees, as they ‘dig-deep’ to negate the stereotype, using up further cognitive resources.

WENDY

Wendy is appointed to the senior leadership team (SLT), having been promoted from an area of the business where most of the staff are female. She is the only woman on the SLT. Over coffee, before SLT meetings, the men often talk about sports and their behaviour is quite ‘macho’ in meetings.

Wendy may have a number of potential ST triggers in this example. Firstly, she cannot hide the fact that she is female. Wendy’s background in a female-dominated area of the business may make her gender more salient when she enters a largely male environment. Being the only female can make this gender identity even more salient. Finally, through the style and content of communication, the men further highlight Wendy’s gender to her.

REACTION

Wendy may seek to de-emphasize her gender in the way she dresses, speaks and behaves so as not to remind the men in the SLT of her gender. She may adopt what she feels are more male behaviours to fit in and avoid reminding men on the SLT she is female. This may include being careful about not being seen as favouring women.

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