Self-fulfilling stereotypes

Even subtle gender cues influence women's interest in math vs. the arts.

Published December 11, 2006 8:16PM (EST)

Thanks in part to the Larry Summers fracas, lots of attention has been paid to studies that focus on math performance and gender stereotypes, and it's been well documented that women's performance on math tests is strongly influenced by even the subtlest reminders of those stereotypes. Today, the Washington Post's Shankar Vedantam takes the analysis a step further with a nice rundown of research showing that stereotypes often are self-fulfilling -- affecting not only how girls perform in math but how they present themselves.

Take the study that found that reminding female college students of their gender could affect their expressed preference for math versus the arts. "The women in the group who were asked about co-ed housing expressed a greater preference for the arts compared with the women who were asked questions about their telephone service," Vedantam writes. The researchers concluded that reminding the subjects of their gender -- even through a seemingly benign question -- triggers stereotypically gender-appropriate interests. Another part of the same study, published more recently, found that when female test subjects were subliminally exposed to "words with feminine associations" like "lipstick" or "skirt," they were more likely to show an interest in the arts than in math; when they were exposed to words with "male associations" like "suit" or "cigar," they preferred math. Psychologist Jennifer Steele, who conducted the test, said: "It is disturbing to think I can show you words outside your awareness and that can influence your preference."

These findings don't mean gender difference doesn't exist. But as the Post's Vedantam puts it, the result "makes you wonder, doesn't it, about the hidden power that lies in the ordinary things around you?" Indeed -- the triggers used in the studies are pretty mundane. What effect might playing with a Bratz Passion 4 Fashion doll have on a girl's academic performance or how she chooses to construct her identity? There's nothing like a friendly reminder of the creepy power of stereotypes and suggestion to put the stakes -- a girl's or woman's personhood, really -- in perspective.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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