Hundreds of studies have shown that when something in a situation calls attention to one or more of a person’s group identities (e.g. woman, black, elderly, white male) and cues awareness of a stereotype associated with that group (e.g. bad at math, unintelligent, feeble, racially biased) they are at risk of experiencing the negative effects of stereotype threat.
Everyone belongs to at least one group that has a stereotype relevant to at least some situations—from sweeping aspects of our identities like age, gender and race, to more subtle characteristics like parental status, education level and religious beliefs.
Overlooking the impact of stereotype threat has been shown to create an adverse impact on student, patient, faculty, provider and employee performance. In this article, we will examine some of the ways stereotype threat diminishes an individual’s sense of wellbeing, performance and success, and how your organization can mitigate this issue to foster diversity in the workplace.
We do not need to be consciously aware that we are experiencing stereotype threat to suffer from its negative effects. Here are some surprising but common responses individuals exhibit when their identities are pigeon-holed:
Behaving in ways that confirm the stereotype
Awareness of harmful stereotypes can impact performance across the spectrum of activity, not just in professional or academic settings. In one study, White golfers did worse than black golfers when told they were taking a test of “natural athletic ability.” Black golfers did worse than white golfers when told the test required “sport strategic intelligence.”
Stereotype threat leads to diminished performance on cognitive (e.g. math, problem- solving, chess), physical (athletics) and/or interpersonal (negotiating, social) tasks. For example, when female chess players believed they were playing against a male chess player, they performed worse than male chess players. When they were told (falsely) they were playing against another woman, they performed just as well as the male players.
Dis-identification and disengagement
People tend to be highly sensitive to cues indicating that one of their identities might be devalued, which can create a separation and disengagement with task, career, organization, profession. Individuals are at higher risk when there are few others who are members of the same group (e.g. few women or minorities).
Anxiety and physiologic effects
The mental stress of managing stereotype threat results in anxiety that distracts from the present task. As with any threat, the sympathetic nervous system is activated which can create a physiological response such as rising blood pressure, heart rate variability and inflammation.
Not limited to minorities or marginalized groups
When those in the non-minority group experience stereotype threat, it has an adverse impact on their performance as well. Triggering a “white racist” stereotype threat has been shown to increase anxiety and have negative cognitive and behavioral consequences in whites including fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, impaired working memory caused by regulating behavior to avoid appearing prejudiced.
This stereotype trigger can also make things worse as they may seek to distance themselves from those in the marginalized set. As a result, communication and collaboration suffer.
Creating an identity-safe environment
With increased diversity in the workplace comes a corresponding increase in unconscious bias. One unique aspect of stereotype threat is that the people who care the most about doing well who are also the most impaired by stereotype threat. As with every type of anti-bias learning and understanding, making change is an ongoing process, not a “one-and-done” fix. However, here are a few basic improvements you can implement to immediately diminish stereotype threat:
- Remove stereotype-reinforcing or triggering images, documents, artwork from the workplace and replace with counter-stereotypic imagery, artwork, documents etc.
- Focus on growth, not fixed ability. Emphasize that all tasks and abilities are skills that can be learned. Help others see low performance as situational, malleable or temporary.
- Teach about stereotype threat and remind people that when they feel anxious or temporarily unhappy with lower-than-expected performance, it could be stereotype threat and is NOT related to their actual ability.
- Encourage self-affirmation by encouraging others to focus on their characteristics, skills, values, or roles that they value or view as important.
- Openly state that no one group is better at a task than another
- Create a new sense of “common in-group identity” by actively developing partnerships that emphasize what individuals have in common. Feeling part of an in-group lowers threat and increases a sense of safety.
As varied individuals with multi-faceted identities, stereotype threat impacts each of us whether we’re aware of it or not. Though the negative effects of stereotyping may be playing out just under the surface, every organization has the ability to take proactive measures to enacting meaningful change.
Don’t overlook the negative impact of stereotype threat in your organization. We’ll help you strengthen your workforce by implementing proven strategies that are supported by science and evidence.