Lawrence H. Summers, former Harvard president, is not known for his accomplishments within education or school administration. Instead, he is widely known as the Harvard president who had to step down because of his remarks about women and science. Summers spoke at a meeting regarding women’s progress in academia and, according to many in attendance, bluntly suggested that women do not achieve in math and science at the same levels men do because of an inborn lack of ability (2). Although Summers has since protested that his statement was misunderstood, the public response to the alleged statement shows a tremendous amount about how far our society has come in understanding the power of a phenomenon known as stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is a cognitive trend that can basically be described as a self-fulfilling prophesy for educational ability or behavior and has most often been studied with regard to the academic success of women and minorities, although it may be applicable to any stereotyped group and situation. Based on knowledge of stereotype threat and how potent its effects can be on cognition, educators should work to change the classroom environment to reflect the fewest possible stereotypes.
Stereotype threat is based on the expectations individuals believe are placed on them. Because one believes that there is a certain stereotype regarding a group they identify with, when performing a task that relates to the stereotype, the individual feels extra stress and anxiety, and uses cognitive power worrying about conforming to the stereotype. Because this extra cognitive force is being spent on anxiety, the individual ends up not performing as well on the task as they might have without the burden of the stereotype. Because of the individual’s performance on the task, whatever stereotype they were performing to gets perpetuated and continues to hold influence over the abilities of their group.
Stereotype threat is not only a reaction to an overt and obvious stereotype, it can appear with the presence of almost any reminder that the stereotype in question exists. “Out of Thin Air, Part I” uses an experiment run at Stanford University to demonstrate just how little is needed in order to cause a significant gap in performance. Black and White students in this study were given a short SAT-style test and half of the sample was asked to share their race before starting the test in addition to other demographic questions, such as age and major. The control group filled out all of the demographic information, except for the section regarding race. Not surprisingly, the Black students who hadn’t been primed to consider race did just as well on the test as their White peers. This is no surprise considering that all students had already been judged on their academic abilities when they applied for college and were accepted at Stanford. The surprising piece of the experiment lies with the students who were asked to identify their race before starting the test. These Black students did significantly worse that their white peers, despite the equality of scores found in the control group. This shows that the cognitive abilities of the Black students were inherently no different than those of the White students, but when asked to consider race, their scores reflected what they subconsciously believed was expected of them. By reminding them of their identification as a member of a group that has been stereotyped as performing lower than Whites, the Black students’ anxiety about this stereotype caused them to have a greater cognitive load than the White students and as a result, do worse on the task at hand (4). Similar results have been found in studies relating to women and mathematics testing, White men in relation to Black men and athletics and White engineering students when compared to Asian students.
Recently, it has also been found that stereotype threat does not only occur in the application of knowledge, such as in a testing setting, but that it interferes with learning knowledge everyday in the classroom – and starting from a young age. “When Negative Gender Stereotypes Hang Heavy in the Classroom, Girls Learn Less” discusses this issue by citing an experiment that taught women a skill involving “visual perception” – a skill that is typically thought to be difficult for women to learn (1). The women who were taught the skill without being reminded of their status and supposed disadvantage as women, performed well, while women who were primed to identify as women were unable to learn the skills needed. When further investigated, it was found that the women who were primed to think of their female stereotype were not only performing below the women who had not been primed, but they actually had not been able to learn how to perform the task (1). This principle has been tested with women and math skills, and it was found that, again, women not only have trouble performing well and recalling information when reminded of the negative stereotypes they are faced with, but they also have a lot of trouble with the process of memorizing and learning the mathematics needed to complete the task when they are in the stereotyped condition (1). Sian Beilock, the author of “When Negative Gender Stereotypes Hang Heavy in the Classroom, Girls Learn Less,” also discovered that at very young ages, and for various reasons, children agree with the ideas that “boys are good at math and girls are good at reading” (1). These common stereotypes can negatively affect both male and female abilities in academics if they are not corrected early.
Since it has been shown that students can all perform at the same level, despite the stereotypes that exist regarding race and gender, it would be extremely beneficial for educators to use this knowledge in order to help students perform to their true potential rather than their stereotyped potential. “Stereotype Threat, Causes, Effects & Remedies” offers several possible ways to work on the elimination of stereotype in the classroom. The key suggestions are to “refram[e] the task, deemphasiz[e] threatened social identities,
provid[e] role models, hav[e] the test administered by a member of the stigmatized group, provid[e] external attributions for difficulty, and assur[e] individuals that they are capable” (3 pg.5). Basically, by reassuring students that they are able to complete the task at hand as well as anyone else, not teaching to stereotypes and showing examples of diversity within the classroom, school and society (5), teachers can get much more out of their students, and students will not have to face as much anxiety in terms of their identity’s role in their education.
Whether one is an educator, or a student, and no matter how formal or informal the education, I think it is important to look at what stereotypes may be being primed and therefore affecting performance or achievement. The concept of stereotype threat is one that shows just how important it is to research the mind. However, it also shows how dangerous it can be to put ideas about the brain into the public sphere. If scientists find that women have brains that are less able to handle spatial reasoning, it is likely that stereotype threat will ensure that very few women enter fields that involve mental reasoning. However, if the research is later found to be lacking, society can’t take back the effect the research has already had on stereotypes or any ideas towards women and spatial reasoning – so the danger mainly lies in claiming that there are neurological differences between any groups. This is why Lawrence Summers’ statement was so incendiary – by stating his opinion about neurological difference between men and women publically, he could have (and probably did to some extent) influenced the public’s view of women’s physiological mental abilities – causing women’s performance and participation in math and science to drop, despite a potential equality in women’s abilities with men’s. As Sam Sommers eloquently states, “stereotypes…pose risks when they're just out there in the ether, lingering unspoken in the social air around us. Out of thin air, stereotypes have the power to shape our behavior” (4). Just knowing that a stereotype exists is enough to change an individual’s behavior, and because of this, the cultural climate has a huge role in determining ability. Knowing that stereotypes can have such a strong influence is frightening, yet is also empowers education to lift the boundaries and barriers that stereotypes create and allow all who want to learn to have an equal opportunity.
(1)Beilock, S. (2010, August 10). When negative gender stereotypes hang heavy in the classroom, girls learn less. Psychology Today, Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/choke/201008/when-negative-gender-stereotypes-hang-heavy-in-the-classroom-girls-learn-less
(2) Dobbs, M. (2005, January 19). Harvard chief's comments on women assailed. The Washington Post, (Pg. A02), Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A19181-2005Jan18.html
(3) Singletary, S., Ruggs, E. N., Hebl, M. R. (2009). Stereotype threat: causes, effects & remedies. Assessing Women and Men in Engineering, Retrieved from http://www.AWEonline.org
(4) Sommers, S. (2010, September 13). Out of thin air, part I. Psychology Today, Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-small-talk/201009/out-thin-air-part-i
(5) Sommers, S. (2010, September 19). Out of thin air, part II. Psychology Today, Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-small-talk/201009/out-thin-air-part-ii
The late 1960s brought on the first real indication that feminist groups were concerned with the education system in North America. The focus of these feminist groups captured the attention of teachers, parents, and students. At first the evidence for inequality in schooling was based on no more than specific case studies and anecdotal references to support their claims but as more people began to show concern for the situation, more conclusive research was done to show that the claims of inequality were in fact valid and definitely indicated a problem with the way that schools were educating the future adults of society. One of the problems which became apparent was the fact that the policy-makers set a curriculum which, as shown specifically through textbooks, was sexist and for the most part still is.
Textbooks are one of the most important tools used in educating students whether they are elementary school storybooks or university medical textbooks. It is therefore no surprise that these books are some of the most crucial information sources that a student has throughout their schooling. Many studies have been done examining the contents of these books to reveal the amount of sexism displayed in these educational tools. The results clearly show that gender inequality definitely runs rampant in textbooks some of the sexism subtle and some overt. To begin with, it is apparent that historical texts show a distorted view of women by portraying them unfairly and inaccurately and neglecting to mention important female figures, instead opting to describe their sometimes less influential male counterparts. Elementary and secondary school textbooks are also guilty of gender bias.
In elementary and secondary school textbooks, sexism takes many forms. Boys predominate in stories for children; they outnumber girls 5 to 2. When girls are present in texts, they are almost always younger than the boys they are interacting with, which thus makes them foils for the boys’ greater experience and knowledge– a situation commonly referred to as the ‘ninny sister syndrome.’ Girls are shown to be far more passive than are boys and to engage in fewer activities. In fact, sometimes grown women are portrayed who rely on small boys (often their young sons) to help them out of difficulty. (Fishel and Pottker 1977. p. 8)
Surprisingly it is not only these hidden forms of sexism that appear in textbooks.
One study found sixty-five stories that openly belittled girls (two were found that belittled boys). Another study pointed out an instance where Mark, of the Harper & Row ‘Mark and Janet’ series, states: ‘Just look at her. She is just like a girl. She gives up.’ Male characters said, in another story, ‘We much prefer to work with men.’ This type of material on the treatment of girls would seem to have little social or educational value, and its widespread use is difficult to understand. (ibid, p.8)
In the long run, the ideas put in students heads through textbooks, perhaps through the lack of female role models, can affect the choices they make in the future with regards to employment.
Actual teaching situations are also prone to sexism. For the most part teachers do not try to be sexist but, for sociological reasons, can not help it. For the sake of this paper, it will be assumed that these situations occur mostly in co-educational schools, but single sex schools are in no way immune to the same problems. A perfect example of society’s male-dominance interfering in education unintentionally is when teachers assign projects to their students. The teachers may hand out lists of acceptable topics ranging, in a history class for example, from fashion to transportation. The teachers then give the students a choice as to which topic they would like to do the project on. The underlying problem with this is that girls tend to choose what could be considered more “feminine” topics while the boys will choose the more “masculine” ones. “Offered to the pupils as free choice, such selections are self-perpetuating, leading to the expected choices and amplifying any differences there may have been in attitudes.” (Marland 1983, p. 152) The reason for this could be that society, through the media and other modes of communication, has pre-conceived notions as to what issues are “male”, “female”, or unisex.
Another example of how females are prone to gender inequality in the classroom is during class discussion and also what the teacher decides to talk about in the class. Classroom behaviour is a major focal point for those who identify examples of inequality. There are many differences in the way that females and males present themselves at school. It is apparent that in classroom situations males talk more, interrupt more, they define the topic, and women tend to support them. It is generally believed in our society that this is the proper way to act in classroom situations, that males have it “right” and females don’t, they are just “pushovers” and don’t have enough confidence. This, however is a big assumption to make. Some research has been done in this field that could, however, begin to refute this stereotype. It is frequently assumed that males use language which is forceful confident and masterful (all values which are regarded as positive). Females on the other hand, it is assumed, use language that is more hesitant, qualified, and tentative. One can look at the example of the use of tag questions, which are statements with questions tagged onto the end such as “I’m going to the store, all right?” It is obvious that if the above assumptions about the use of language were true, this hesitant, asking for approval type of question would be more frequently used by women. “. . . studies were carried out to determine whether women used more tag questions than men. It was found that they did not. Betty Lou Dubois and Isabel Crouch (1975) found that men used more tag questions than women.” (ibid p. 100)
The end of high school brings about more obstacles for women on the way to achieving equality in the workplace. One of the most important steps in achieving a high paying, high status job is post-secondary education. It is apparent that even today women are being encouraged to follow certain educational paths. This is shown very simply by the fact that even here at Queen’s University, men vastly outnumber women as both students and faculty members in such programs as Applied Science, while women greatly outnumber men in the programs of nursing and concurrent education. Women have historically been encouraged to enter into what could be considered “caring professions” such as nursing, teaching, and social work. This is shown very crudely in the book Careers for Women in Canada which was published in 1946 and written by a woman. The book devotes almost 200 pages to pursuing careers in such fields as catering, sewing, being a secretary, interior decorating, the arts, teaching, and nursing while it only allocates 30 pages to medicine, law, dentistry, engineering, optometry, and more combined. The following quote clearly illustrates the beliefs of the more liberal people of that time. “Some women have specialized in surgery. There can be no doubt but that a capable woman may operate very successfully on women and children, though it is doubtful whether a man would call in the services of a female surgeon except in an emergency. (Carriere 1946, p. 234) Although much has improved since the 1940s, the enrollment numbers in university programs clearly indicate that women still have a long way to go before gender is not an issue.
After choosing a career path, women enter the workplace with a disadvantage. They have the same financial responsibilities as men with regards to supporting families and themselves and much of the time they have an even heavier burden because there are many women in today’s society who are single mothers. Given that there is no question that the need for money is identical it can, therefore, be concluded that there is a major problem with the wage structure in today’s jobs. The wage gap clearly shows that society as a whole puts more value on the work of males than on the same work done by females. The facts that have been displayed above showing that education is itself a sexist institution perhaps explain why there is this inequality once schooling is finished. The fact that textbooks show males as being more successful than females, that teachers set assignments which reinforce gender stereotypes and sex roles, the fact that “masculine” behaviour is reinforced while “feminine” behaviour is condemned, and the fact that women are encouraged to choose certain career paths all validate the claim that the gender inequality in employment situations can be directly related to the way that children are educated.