Battling stereotype threat requires affirming oneself and attributing the problem to factors beyond one’s control rather than an innate inability to perform, said Professor of Psychology Dr. Nicole Shelton at a Women in STEM discussion Feb. 21.
As part of the Mental Health Week presented by USG and the Mental Health Board, the dinner discussion invited students, faculty members, and administrators to identify stereotype threat, its spillover effects, and ways to deal with these issues in everyday life.
Dr. Hilary Herbold, social worker at Counseling and Psychological Services, explained that stereotype threat is the pressure to perform well on a task in order to avoid confirming negative stereotypes, a feat that takes up significant cognitive space and thus leaves less bandwidth for the actual task at hand.
Alison Herman ’19, a student organizer, added that stereotype threat often manifested well beyond the stereotyped domain, citing studies that show women perform worse on verbal tests administered after math tests in which they were reminded of their gender. Similarly, she said that women tended to make less healthy eating choices and show riskier behavior immediately following a situation where they were under stereotype threat.
“Every time I walk into my all-male ELE classes I feel like I’m representing all of womankind, and if I make a mistake then the others are probably thinking that all women are dumb,” explained one female student in the electrical engineering department. Several students agreed, adding that in classes they were often made aware of their race or gender because other students acted like they did not want to work with them.
One way to combat this stereotype threat is simply to be aware of it and understand that there is a legitimate reason for feeling the pressure, noted Director of the Women*s Center Dr. Amada Sandoval. Attributing the problem to something outside themselves is a tactic that some students said they used.
For example, one student spoke out about her feelings on Princeton’s environment. “I tell myself that Princeton is not a normal space and the things I am experiencing are very abnormal — this is not a regular experience,” she said. “The reason I am not happy is not about me, it is because Princeton sucks.”
Institutional changes like bringing in more minority women professors at the introductory level in STEM classes could help young girls find role models in the field and feel like they belong, explained Herman. Many students at the table complained that they had rarely or never had a female professor in their science classes.
Additionally, students often felt pressured by their peers to enter high-paying, successful professions even if their interest did not lie in that field, said one student in the computer science department, referring in particular to recruitment season.
Dr. Sandoval noted that college was meant to give people more options and the tools to choose more careers rather than trying to prove one’s worth.
“A friend at my 25th Harvard reunion said that he didn’t feel successful because he wasn’t a Head of State!” she explained, adding that such ridiculous pressure was common in elite environments like the University.
Others believed that the problem of stereotype threat was often conflated by multiple stereotyped identities. “I’m a woman, and I’m black and I have natural hair — that puts me so low on the hierarchy,” said one student. Another added that as an international student from Africa, she had been told by a peer that she was only at the University to add to the diversity.
Shelton explained that self-affirmation often helps in such situations, even if it means affirming oneself in an area outside the stereotyped domain. Sandoval added that it often helps to manage boundaries better with those friends who, consciously or unconsciously, undermine one’s efforts.
“If I have to create a bubble around myself to make it through, then I will,” said one student, explaining that she did not feel bad for cutting those people out of her life that questioned her abilities.
The discussion, which was held at the Women*s Center, was attended by 17 female and one male student.