Feeling the need to break a stereotype more often leads to underperformance. This is just one of the impacts of the phenomenon researchers have named “stereotype threat”.
Stereotype threat describes the collection of thoughts, behaviours, reactions and modifications people engage in to avoid falling into stereotypes. The fear surrounding stereotyping or being stereotyped is credited for reducing executive function, working memory and emotional regulation. People can be so distracted by the fear of perpetuating a stereotype that they so disrupt their own performance as to confirm it.
If a man or woman in a particular field of work or study observes the stereotyping of their respective gender as not being competent to task, this is likely to cause an increased mental load that will negatively impact their performance – which may consequently prove the stereotype accurate.
This is felt in different ways by many demographics that are often stereotyped such as race, gender, age, IQ, field of employment, socio-economic status, and level of education. In any situation where stereotyping is possible, stereotype threat can exist. It can impede best performance and optimum engagement by both the stereotyper AND the stereotyped.
I see this phenomenon play out in a number of my personal and working contexts. Firstly, as a woman in ministry. Because I am aware that some deem it inappropriate for a woman to lead, in some contexts I am quite distracted by this attitude. I can become overly concerned about leading in a way that would refute such an opinion or impress sceptics – even subconsciously. Research indicates that this constant background processing reduces the amount of cognitive energy and focus I can apply to the actual task of leading – potentially reducing my capacity rather than allowing me to put my best foot forward.
Women preachers often report this as a regular part of their experience. Because of opposing views and the hurtful and dysregulated expression of same, women are often left feeling that they carry a greater burden of responsibility to preach well. If a woman preaches a bad sermon it could reinforce the notion that women shouldn’t be preaching (whereas a sub-par sermon from a man has not yet been known to call the preaching suitability of all males into question). Academic findings show us that this threat can be intensely undermining and often results in “over-efforting” to compensate and attempt to disprove the stereotype.
I also see this happen generationally. Younger leaders with a desire to develop or advance are cognizant of the stereotype that they are immature or unskilled, and the perception that they are wanting opportunities that are not yet theirs to have. The threat of this stereotype could cause a young person to act inappropriately, perhaps overenthusiastically and reinforce rather than refute the theory. Conversely, stereotype threat could cause a senior leader to act outside of their general process or gut-instinct for fear that their hesitancy is based on stereotyping and consequently misapply responsibility or opportunity to a young leader who does not yet meet required standards.
If we are aware of a stereotype we are affected by the threat of it.
Ultimately, the literature reveals that if we are aware of a stereotype we are affected by the threat of it. Leading thinker in the field, Claude Steele, references the scenario of auditioning a celloist for an orchestra. If, by seeing the candidates, the selectors might be aware of the perception of bias towards a particular gender, age demographic, or race, the only way to neutralise the threat is to hold a blind audition. Otherwise, the innate desire to not stereotype might lead to impaired assessment of the candidate’s cello playing abilities.
I find this area of research fascinating and think it has great application for all of us in some way. Here are a few thoughts for consideration.
Stereotype threat exists!
Acknowledging this will make us more aware of the instances this presents itself in our personal and professional lives. As stated above, if you are aware of a potential stereotype you are being affected by it. As Dr Phil says, you can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge. It’s a starting point to do a self-assessment and consider the areas you are most threatened by stereotyping and the perception or avoidance of stereotyping. This positions us to address it in a way that might free us from the threat and release the brain space that is being occupied with handling that threat.
Dis-identify with the stereotype
The impact of stereotype threat on the person who feels they are being stereotyped can be mitigated by distancing the stereotype from the person. While we might fear others are judging our work based on our gender, we can separate our gender from our role and focus solely on accomplishing it to the best of our ability – for example not being a “good female” or a “good male” in that context – just being good, full stop. If we are able to separate the aspect potentially being stereotyped from our core identity we can release the full attention and resources of our hearts and minds to performing the task or showing up as our best selves.
Relationship removes stereotypes
The way to remove the impact of stereotype threat is to see people as the individuals they are rather than the stereotypes they may represent. Being well-known (personality, temperament, skills, passions, personal life etc) and creating safe interpersonal environments will lead to high trust relationships that ultimately blind us to stereotypes. We no longer see our work colleagues as the “Asian guy on our team” or the “woman in our department”. As the bank of information we have about a person builds, the potential stereotype becomes a smaller part of the way we perceive or experience them.
As leaders, that could encourage us to being more intentional about creating teams or environments where relationship is valued and nurtured. Where there are opportunities for people to engage, in planned or more casual contexts, and discover more about one another. As individuals, offering more information about ourselves, presenting our whole person, will also reduce the size of the stereotype in the perception of others and go a long way to reducing its threat or impact.
I was introduced to this work on this podcast episode of Adam Grant – ReThinking
Check out https://claudesteele.com/ to explore more of Professor Claude M. Steele’s work