What is stereotype threat, and how can I deal with it?

Author: Angela Ziegler

When I first started teaching myself programming, I had already seen the stereotypes about how women are not as good as men at programming, but I didn’t really think much of it. Later, when I was reading through some programming forums, I ran into men talking about how all of the female programmers they worked with didn’t actually know what they were doing. They were saying things like, “A typical female programmer just copies other people’s code” and “Those women don’t actually care about programming, they just want to look cool.”

One person acknowledged that a woman he had worked with was talented, but then he said that she was “too emotional” to handle any sort of pressure or stress. This shocked me a bit and made me pretty mad, but just like before, I tried to ignore it and keep learning.

A few days later, when I was having trouble figuring something in C++ (a programming language) out, this feeling of doubt started seeping through me. I was trying to focus, but I kept thinking of what those forum posters had said. When I looked online to research how to solve a problem, their words echoed in my head. I felt like I was faking and that I was incompetent even though I’m learning, and I shouldn’t expect myself to be perfect right away. This idea just kept lurking in the background, undermining my confidence and distracting me.

This idea just kept lurking in the background, undermining my confidence and distracting me.”

This is actually a well-documented phenomenon known as stereotype threat. A study done by Steele and Aronson in 1995 coined the term, defining it as “being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.” In their original study, they found that when race was emphasized before taking a standardized test, African-American students did worse on the test than Caucasian students, even though they did well under normal circumstances.

There have been many studies done on stereotype threat, all of which reinforce the same findings. Many studies have been done on this subject, looking at the academic performance of Hispanic people, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, females in math and even Caucasian males faced with the notion that Asians are better at math.

All of the studies done suggested that people perform worse when reminded of stereotypes about their race or gender.

This is quite a big problem, because it can deter people from pursuing their interests, and increase the divisions between different groups of people.

So, what can you do to combat stereotype threat? One way that it can be reduced is by thinking about your strengths. What are you good at? What do you like about yourself? This can help you to think of yourself as an individual, rather than a member of a group. When you only think of yourself only as a member of a group, you may feel like you have to represent that group. But this can be a harmful way of thinking, because everybody is different, and nobody is defined solely by their gender or race.

Above all, remember that whatever your race or gender is, it doesn’t define you. You are a person with your own strengths and weaknesses, and you’re not just part of a group!