Gender cues affect test results

How the "stereotype threat" impacts math test scores.

Published August 31, 2006 5:18PM (EDT)

It's unlikely that the last time you took a math test someone informed you, before the exam, that because you are a woman, you will likely not score as high as your male peers. (If this scenario did in fact happen, let us know!) However, according to the Washington Post, a new study shows that something as simple as checking the box for "male" or "female" can trigger gender cues which will affect your performance. This phenomenon, called "stereotype threat" is a kind of performance anxiety which was first discovered in "1995 when psychologists found that black students at Stanford University did significantly worse on intelligence tests if they were first asked to identify their race on the test form," the Post reports.

Stereotype threat suggests that subtle gender cues can cause "women or minorities to think subconsciously about their sex or race [causing] them [to] do poorly in areas where the stereotype suggests they are weak." But University of Texas psychologist Matthew S. McGlone wonder what would happen if you flipped the stereotype threat on its head -- if people were asked to think about their strengths rather than their stereotypical weaknesses before an exam.

He took his question to a group of 90 students, half men and half women at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. The students were broken up into three groups with one group asked whether they lived in a single-sex or coed dorm. According to McGlone, previous studied found that "even this benign question unconsciously activated male and female stereotypes." The second group answered questions about why they chose to attend a private liberal arts college. His goal here was to encourage the men and women to think about how intelligent they were. "We were activating their snob schema," he told the Post. Finally, the control group was asked to write about their experience living in the northeastern United States.

The students then took the Vandenberg Mental Rotation Test, a standard test of visual-spatial abilities linked to math performance. According to the Post, previous studies found that men are three times as likely as women to do well on this test. The results of the study, which will appear in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Development Psychology, find that men in the control group did, indeed, perform 15 to 20 percent better than women on the test. Of the group who had been subtly cued to think about their gender, the gap was even wider; the men did 25 to 30 percent better than the women. And in the group where students' egos were stroked, the gender gap closed dramatically; women's scores improved while the men's stayed the same.

"There was no significant difference between men and women," McGlone told the Post, "With a pretty simple manipulation, we could significantly reduce this gap," which suggests that "there might be things that make all of these biological factors go away." These are fascinating, encouraging results, which should be applied by educators and test designers to rethink the ways gender and race stereotypes are reinforced in even the most inconspicuous, unconscious ways.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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