Stereotype Threat



This morning I was listening briefly to NPR in the car and caught a snippet of the interview they played with Cheryl Sandberg about her new book, Lean In. Here’s a brief passage from NPR’s website:

Boys, she says, are socialized to be assertive and aggressive and take leadership. Girls? “We call our little girls bossy,” Sandberg says. “Go to a playground: Little girls get called ‘bossy’ all the time, a word that’s almost never used for boys. And that leads directly to the problems women face in the workforce. When a man does a good job, everyone says, ‘That’s great.’ When a woman does that same thing, she’ll get feedback that says things like, ‘Your results are good, but your peers just don’t like you as much’ or ‘maybe you were a little aggressive.’ ”

“What’s holding women back in computer science is the exact same thing … that’s holding women back in leadership,” Sandberg says. It’s something social scientists call “stereotype threat.” Stereotype threat means that the more we’re aware of a stereotype, the more we act in accordance with it,” Sandberg explains. “So, stereotypically we believe girls are not good at math. Therefore, girls don’t do well at math, and it self-perpetuates. If you ask a girl right before she takes a math test to check off ‘M’ or ‘F’ for male or female, she does worse on that test. The reason there aren’t more women in computer science is there aren’t enough women in computer science.”

I ended up watching Les Misérables this morning, which reminded me about all of the Anne Hathaway backlash going on after she’s done so well during this recent award season. For instance, there is the Huffington Post article addressing things that says:

With an Oscar and a Golden Globe to her name, and a perch on top of the Hollywood scene, why does everyone still hate on Anne Hathaway? Her recent film and award season success has unleashed a backlash, including a brutal response on Twitter to her Oscar acceptance speech. On Friday, HuffPost Live host Alicia Mendendez asked what generates that fire. Rich Juzwiak, a writer at, pointed out that no matter how many naysayers she has, Hathaway still is “winning.” Juzwiak went on to say that “there would not be a need for a backlash if she weren’t so successful, it’s in response to that.”

Or the bit in the New Yorker saying:

This question [Why are you so annoying?] was posed repeatedly in the days after Anne Hathaway’s Oscar win for her role as the destitute-prostitute mother Fantine, in “Les Mis”—and various answers have been offered: she’s too actorly, and reminds us of the show-tune-belting nightmare we knew in high school; she’s polished, successful, and driven, and people still find this distasteful in a woman; plump faces are the vogue and her face is too thin; the public every so often elects a random celebrity victim for vitriolic hatred—every generation needs one, and she is ours; her sunny persona is a coverup for steely ambition that catapulted her out of youthful stardom into a mature career that runs the gamut from eccentric indie to big-franchise blockbuster. To these reasonably convincing propositions, I’ll add one more: she represents the archetype of the happy girl, which is one that many people resist.

Slate thinks that the New Yorker author’s take on the situation is incorrect and ends up still blaming women:

In reality, Weiss’s contention that society is unduly cruel to deliberately girlish women misses the point entirely. Our media is awash with the sexual fantasy of the infantilized and therefore submissive woman. (Watch a delicious satire of the trope from Community here.) This does, in fact, tend to drive many women bonkers. But it should not be construed as some deep-set societal hatred for girls so much as an entirely understandable reaction from grown women who have every right to expect women to be regarded as adults. And that goes double for when we’re engaging in adult behaviors like being sexual.

Still, even if Weiss wanted to mount this defense of women who really do draw negative reactions because they act girlish, I would resist her. Expecting adult women to act “like men”—i.e., to have self-awareness, to be calm, and to have a sense of humor—is not something that other women should have to apologize for.

I really find all of this fascinating. I think Cheryl Sandberg is really on to something with her book and her efforts to continue exploring why public perception of men and women who engage in the same behaviors is so different. Anne Hathaway seems like a great example of this. I didn’t hear a furor over any of the men in Les Misérables, but the catty online comments were everywhere about Anne. Her mouth is too big, she tries too hard, she’s too perky, etc. And then now that she is being rewarded as successful with nominations and actual awards, she is disliked even more. There was even an Oscars dress spectacle about how Anne’s planned Valentino gown was too similar to Amanda Seyfried’s Alexander McQueen gown, and Anne threw a fit when Amanda showed her a picture of it. However this actually played out in real life, it would be hard to imagine that the media would jump on that same story if the people involved were men. Would Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe would be portrayed as jealous rivals over a tuxedo?

Yes, stereotypes do have a role in our everyday lives that help us to move through the world we live in. We all live with and use them regularly. But when we accept them blindly, and don’t recognize when something may not actually be as we perceive it… well, that’s when they become dangerous. Why? Because we and our perceived worldview feel threatened. Hence, stereotype threat.



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