Some months ago I came across a review in the THE for a book with the strange title of Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude Steele and it finally came to the top of my reading list recently. Far too late to write any kind of review, I will instead write a commentary on why it may be relevant to the vexed question of women in science, and any minority’s performance more generally, under certain exam conditions.
Steele’s research has identified a phenomenon he termed ‘stereotype threat’ which is defined as “a situational predicament felt in situations where one can be judged by, treated in terms of, or self-fulfill negative stereotypes about one’s group”. In other words, when taking a test, for instance, the candidate is not simply performing according to their innate ability: this ability is moderated by the impact of contingent and situational factors deriving from generally held beliefs that people have about the performance and abilities of the candidate’s grouping – as defined by race, sex, age or whatever.
This work grew out of a study Steele made of minority (in general black) students in top-ranked US universities where they seemed to underperform on the basis of their entering SAT scores. What he discovered, by carefully constructed laboratory studies, was that blacks perform significantly less well if they are reminded in some subtle way before the exam that blacks aren’t expected to be intellectually as strong as whites. If the test is introduced as one where intellectual strength is not being tested, though it may be an identical test, the blacks perform as well as the whites. Likewise, stress the fact that girls aren’t so good at maths before a test (using of course girls and boys thought to be equally strong) and lo and behold the girls perform less well than the boys. Tell them the test has nothing to do with maths ability but is exploring how a task is tackled, or some other neutral issue, and the differences go away. A whole host of different factors were studied under test conditions and in ‘real life’ and all the evidence points to this being an important factor. When a test really matters – and the effect doesn’t seem to come into play when the test is easy or people don’t care – then being reminded of a negative stereotyping can wreak havoc with your results. Even if this reminder of the stereotype is separated in time from the actual test there still seems to be damage done. However, give the same test but without the same contingencies, so implying that the negative stereotype is irrelevant to the test, and the underperformance vanishes.
So, how does that play out in the world? If girls are consistently told by their peers, in the media or by their teachers that girls don’t and can’t do maths or science, the evidence is that this will lodge in their sub-conscious to the extent that it will cause anxiety during tests, so lowering their performance. This effect then becomes self-reinforcing; having done badly in one test they will ‘know’ that because they are a girl they will do badly in the next – and so they do, until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and they walk away from the subjects. This could be one factor that reduces the number of girls doing physics and maths at A Level. No one makes similar comments about biology so the girls’ numbers, on this argument, would hold up – as indeed they do.
Melinda commented on a previous post that she thought there was a difference in writing style between men and women. I am not sure how true that is in the standard style of science journals, but what about essays in arts subjects? If girls are told they write less well in boys, does that translate into weaker exam performance? Unfortunately there are indications that sometimes students are told precisely this: ‘write more like men’ is the message – what an unhelpful piece of advice! I have no idea what it means, and probably the students don’t either. If a teacher wants to recommend a change in style, they need to be able to state precisely what it is they are looking for. For years, within my university as I believe in many, the percentage of women getting firsts in subjects such as History and English is smaller than men. Is there any connection? It is something that is clearly worth pursuing, because these are subjects where there is not an initial shortage of bright women entering the university and yet they appear not to thrive.
Since I started writing this (it’s been long in gestation), Imran Khan has written a stimulating and provocative piece about the whiteness of science in the UK. He says
‘Thousands of people are being deterred from careers they would excel in, which is a loss to those individuals. But it also means a loss to society, and the economy. We’re talking about thousands of people who could be making advances, and might be excelling in their field, if it wasn’t due to the discrimination which seems to be built-in to our science and engineering establishment.’
Given that much of the evidence Steele cites in his book deals with young blacks in high schools and colleges in the US, one must wonder if stereotype threat is contributing to the paucity of young blacks entering higher education, and science in particular here. A number small, this approach would suggest, not just because of familial expectations and socioeconomic factors, but because they feel additionally challenged by the perceived stereotypical labels such as ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’. Again, it would be very interesting to see this issue pursued as people try to disentangle the multiple factors which contribute to the comparative under-performance – and consequent under-representation – of certain groups of people. I am no psychologist or sociologist, so I do not know if much research is being done in the UK on these topics, but it seems to me it could be important to check how relevant this phenomenon is on this side of the Atlantic. The more so as the evidence from Steele and colleagues is that quite simple steps can drastically improve the situation. It is intriguing because, both the original threat leading to the under-performance, and the counter steps which seem to work, seem so slight it is hard to see that their impact can be as great as the evidence presented suggests it is.