Could Stereotype Threat be Impacting Your Academic Performance?

Stereotype Threat - What it is and How to Minimize it

Please welcome back Jennifer Warren, attorney and Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law, to talk about how stereotype threat could be impacting your academic performance in law school.

Despite the strides towards equality and fair treatment that have been made over the last decades, negative academic stereotypes about women still exist. While on the surface you may dismiss these stereotypes as utter nonsense deriving from outdated beliefs, they could still be subconsciously affecting your academic performance through a psychological occurrence known as stereotype threat.

What Is Stereotype Threat?

Stereotype threat concerns the negative effects that group stereotypes can have on individuals. It occurs when a person feels at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about a social group to which they belong. Thus, for example, a woman may be overly nervous about an upcoming math test because she fears confirming the stereotype that women are not as good at math as men; or she may be less willing to challenge a male student during a classroom dialogue because she is concerned about confirming the stereotype that women are somehow less capable. Even if the particular student does not view herself as unintelligent or less qualified, she may be influenced by stereotype threat if she is worried about confirming a negative stereotype about a social group.

Stereotype threat may involve conscious or subconscious thoughts, and it has a wide reach. Any person who belongs to a social group about which there are negative stereotypes, whether academic or otherwise, may experience stereotype threat. For female students specifically, stereotype threat commonly emerges as a fear of confirming that women are less proficient than men in certain subjects (like math or science) or that women are less capable of handling difficult scenarios (such as a highly complex merger, a grisly criminal trial, or an overly aggressive opposing counsel).

How Does Stereotype Threat Impact Academic Performance?

Hundreds of studies have examined stereotype threat and its impact on academic performance. Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson were some of the first researchers to study the effects of stereotype threat. In an early study, they researched whether the performance of similarly qualified black and white college students on a portion of the GRE would be impacted when some students were instructed that the exam measured “intellectual ability” while others were simply told it was a problem-solving exercise. The first group showed a marked difference between the scores of black and white students, suggesting that the fear of confirming that a negative stereotype about intelligence influenced the performance of the black students.

Similar results were found when Steele studied the academic performance of women under stereotype threat. Prior to giving a challenging math exam to equally qualified men and women, one group was primed with the negative stereotype that women are not as good as men at math. The women who were negatively primed performed worse on the test than the men while the women who were not negatively primed performed equally as well as the men. Interestingly, when the test was a difficult literature exam, the women performed just as well as men, presumably because women do not generally experience stereotype threat in this area.

These and other studies suggest that the fear of confirming a negative stereotype about a social group burdens the student with additional anxiety and concerns that are not present in unthreatened students. The student who is  – consciously or subconsciously – worrying about confirming the negative stereotype is less able to devote their full focus to the academic task at hand. The fear that accompanies stereotype threat can have a significant impact on cognition, memory, emotional regulation, confidence, mood, and even the amount or type of effort that a student puts forth. In the hyper competitive and academically challenging environment of law school, it’s easy to imagine how a student who is also coping with stereotype threat could become overwhelmed or discouraged.

How Do You Minimize Stereotype Threat?

Stereotype threat can be a powerful force, but there are strategies you can implement to start minimizing its impact on your academic performance. In a study by researchers from the University of Arizona and the University of Alberta, self-affirmation improved the performance of women who were taking a math test under stereotype threat. To incorporate self-affirmation, try to focus on positive qualities about yourself by writing them out or repeating them aloud before starting a difficult task. Similarly, adjusting your mindset and opinions about intelligence may also help combat stereotype threat. A study by Joshua Aronson, Carrie Fried, and Catherine Good found that cultivating a growth mindset in students made them less vulnerable to stereotype threat.

Identifying successful role models from the social group you identify with may also minimize the effects of stereotype threat. A study by researchers at Texas Christian University found that women performed better when they first read about four individual women who succeeded in different fields. To put this strategy into practice, find a relatable mentor at your school to encourage you and start networking with female attorneys so that you have positive role models.

Another strategy to implement is to set mastery goals rather than performance goals. Mastery goals focus on building a skill while performance goals focus on achieving a certain performance standard (or grade). Research by Jane Stout and Nilanjana Dasgupta showed that when subjected to a threatening situation, women who focused on mastery rather than performance goals experienced less social identity threat. In law school, rather than focusing on reaching a certain rank or GPA, try to set goals that focus on improving your writing, analysis, and oral argument skills.

Since simply being aware of stereotype threat can also decrease its impact, educating yourself about this topic is a good place to start. Eliminating stereotype threat will require a cooperative effort, so you may want to reach out to a professor or other advisor who is knowledgeable about stereotype threat or start a dialogue with your friends about this important topic.

Law school is hard enough without additional negative thoughts, anxiety, and fears hindering your success. With so many accomplished, successful women in today’s society, we all know that stereotypes about women being less capable or less intelligent are blatantly untrue. Try to internalize this knowledge so that negative stereotypes won’t hold you back from performing your best in law school and your future career.


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About Jennifer Warren

Jennifer received her B.A. in Politics cum laude from New York University and her J.D. with highest distinction from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. She has several years of experience in the areas of juvenile law and civil litigation and is the Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law.

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