Stereotype Threat For Men?

Female role models that counter negative stereotypes (e.g. a female physicist) can help protect female students from the threat of confirming a negative stereotype (girls are bad at math). But what if those role models express having had some doubts about their ability?

A new study led by San Diego State’s David Marx proposes that when positive female role models express doubts it can mitigate their positive impact. Furthermore, Marx and his team believed that the opposite would happen with men. Because men are more likely to feel threatened by not living up to the expectations of a positive academic stereotype (rather than confirming a negative stereotype), a doubtful male role model might help alleviate some of the pressure of those expectations.

As predicted, doubtful female role models increased threat for females, while doubtful male role models decreased threat for males.

Past work has shown that female role models are effective buffers against stereotype threat. The present research examines the boundary conditions of this role model effect. Specifically, we argue that female role models should avoid expressing doubt about their math abilities; otherwise they may cease to buffer women from stereotype threat. For men, a non-doubtful male role model should be seen as threatening, thus harming performance. A doubtful male role model, however, should be seen as non-threatening, thus allowing men to perform up to their ability in math. To test this reasoning, men and women were exposed to either an outgroup or ingroup role model who either expressed doubt or did not. Participants then took a math exam under stereotype threat conditions. As expected, doubtful ingroup role models hurt women, but helped men’s performance. Outgroup role models’ expressed doubt had no differential effect on performance. We also show that expressions of doubt take on a different meaning when expressed by a female rather than a male role model.

The broader lesson is that over the course of many years the way students think about academic expectations and social and cultural norms can have an enormous impact. It’s not only important to focus on what students are learning and how they’re learning it, but on how they think about those things in the broader context of their lives.

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