iStock_000015871985XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson

Girls are still lagging in the classroom when it comes to math – which has a big impact on tomorrow’s workforce, especially considering the important role the technology industry will play in the economy of the future. According to a recent study by the University of Washington, one potential culprit for girls’ underperformance is gender-stereotyping. Lead author Dario Cvencek explained, “Not only do girls identify the stereotype that math is for boys, but they apply that to themselves. That’s the concerning part. Girls are translating that to mean, ‘Math is not for me.'”

But why do girls believe that? It’s (hopefully) not as if their teacher is standing at the blackboard telling them that girls aren’t supposed to be good at math. Is it the media? Is it parents or peers? In fact, it’s likely a combination of these factors – and one more: themselves.

According to Joshua Aronson, NYU Associate Professor of Applied Psychology, stereotypes influence not only the expectations of the stereotype-holder, but they also impact individual performance as well. At the National Center for Women & Information Technology‘s 2011 Summit last week, he said, “intelligence is both fragile and malleable.” When it comes to performance and intelligence, context matters.

Arosnon explained that stereotype threat – merely the notion that one might “live up to” a negative stereotype – will undermine someone’s ability to perform at their highest capability. The fear of proving a negative stereotype true actually causes someone to underperform – and this can account for girls’ underperformance in math and science.

Fortunately, Aronson said, there is something we can do about it.

Stereotype Threat in Action

How does stereotype threat work? Aronson gave several examples. In one experiment, when a class of girls and boys were told they were being tested at math to see if the stereotype held true, boys generally outperformed girls. Yet, in groups told before the test that studies showed the math gender stereotype was almost never significant, girls and boys scored about the same.

High school students taking the AP Calculus test are generally asked their gender before taking the test. In a field study performed by ETS (Educational Testing Services, the company that designs aptitude tests like the GRE and Praxis), a sample group of girls and boys was asked to indicate their gender after completing it.

Females who received the gender inquiry before the test scored an average AP Formula Score of 12.5, while males scored an average of 16.5. In the groups that received the gender inquiry after the test, females scored an average of 15, while males scored an average of 14. Not only did stereotype threat significantly harm girls’ scores, but boys benefited from being reminded of their gender before taking the test. Aronson said that ETS declined to change the system, even in light of the results of the study.

The phenomenon also costs women an average of twenty to thirty SAT points, he added.

Stereotype threat can have a serious impact not only on test performance, but on interests and futures. If girls consistently believe they are scoring poorly in math and science because they are biologically not cut out for it, they are less likely to pursue those fields of study at any level. The same goes for Black and Latino children as well. And that’s why its important to change the way we talk about test taking and performance.

What We Can Do about Stereotype Threat

Aronson said, “One way to counteract [stereotype threat] is to introduce a growth mindset.” For example, he recommended that teachers and parents emphasize the “expandability” of knowledge – by explaining that test-taking can build-brains, rather than framing the test as a way to see how smart students are.

In an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center, he elaborated,

“How schools position tests is critically important. Ideally, they should be situated as non-evaluative tasks. This may be hard to do in the [No Child Left Behind] era, yet our research has shown time and time again that, if tests are not presented as a measure of students’ intelligence, students of color do better. One teacher we worked with told students the test would be used to measure how well the school was doing, rather than how well students were doing. Students performed better.

If this isn’t possible, schools should be clear that the tests will measure of students’ current knowledge, not their overall ability or potential. Many students believe intelligence and aptitude are unchangeable — that whatever they were born with is all they’re ever going to have. And when students are aware of social stereotypes like ‘blacks are stupid’ or ‘girls can’t do math,’ it may seem pointless to try to do your best.

A key way to offset the stereotype threat is to stress consistently throughout the year the expandability of academic abilities. When teachers, parents and others let students know that their abilities can improve with hard work, the stereotype threat loses some of its potency, and, research shows, students’ test scores and grades will improve.”

By encouraging students to think differently about how they are learning and being evaluated, research shows they will perform better – which impacts their belief in stereotypes as well as their belief in themselves. Changing the way girls see themselves and their performance in math and science is one key to building the diverse pipeline of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists that will be sorely needed in 21st century economy.