Remove stereotype threats in science, and women do just as well as men!

By Catarina Filipe Correia - August 2015


Marchand, G. C., & Taasoobshirazi, G. (2013). Stereotype threat and women's performance in physics. International Journal of Science Education, 35(18), 3050–3061. doi:10.1080/09500693.2012.683461

This paper investigates the impact of stereotype threat – the reinforcement of a negative stereotype – on young women’s academic achievement in high school physics classes. It thereby contributes to a growing body of work addressing gender issues in science performance and participation. An examination of gender-based differences in academic performance (Blickenstaff, 2005) suggests that sociocultural factors may be responsible. One such factor is the presence of stereotype threat — for example, when girls are told that females typically don’t do well in science.

Research Design

The paper presents a quasi-experimental study on the effects of three different stereotype threat conditions on gender-based performance in a physics assessment test. The three conditions were:

The study was conducted in four U.S. high schools. Of the 312 Grade 11 students tested, 145 were female. Half the participants were Caucasian, with Asian and Latino students comprising the other half. After being randomly assigned to one of the three stereotype threat conditions, students were asked to solve four quantitative physics problems based on physics material already covered at school. Students were given a formula sheet and were allowed to use a calculator. The test lasted for 20 minutes.

Research Findings 

The researchers performed a statistical analysis of the influence of the stereotype threat conditions on performance, correcting for students’ self-reported grades in physics. They found that females underperformed significantly under both the explicit and implicit stereotype threat conditions. However, under the nullified stereotype threat condition, female and male performance was similar. The statistical analyses ruled out the influence not only of students’ physics grades but also of age and ethnicity, confirming that the differences observed could be attributed to the influence of the stereotype threat condition.

Results of this study are consistent with previous research showing that nullifying stereotype threat minimizes the differences in performance between males and females (Smith & White, 2002; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999). The influence of the implicit stereotype threat condition, meanwhile, is highly significant, as it points to the damaging influence of pervasive societal stereotypes.

Implications for Practice

This research reminds us that students are vulnerable to societal stereotypes and that stereotyping, whether implicit or explicit, is likely to affect academic performance. One strategy to combat gender stereotyping is to explicitly reinforce the equal capacity of males and females in science by, for example, emphasizing effort and mastery rather than ability. This emphasis is important because, unlike ability, effort and mastery have not been traditionally associated with gender.

There is a clear need for further research in this area, in particular on the relationships between stereotype threat and stress, self-regulation, and goal orientation. Findings from research on the effect of role models may also be helpful here.

In addition, although no differences in performance among ethnic groups were found in this study, the authors acknowledge that this dimension needs to be explored further, given that some minority groups are also typically underrepresented in science.

Related Briefs:

  • Bevan, B. (2011). Designing research-based afterschool science programs for girls: An ISE research brief discussing Lyon & Jafri's, "Project Exploration's Sisters4Science."
  • King H. (2011). The impact of gender on young people’s STEM choices: An ISE research brief discussing Buccheri et al.’s, "The impact of gender on interest in science topics and the choice of scientific and technical vocations."
  • Kong, F. (2011). Encouraging Latinas toward IT careers: An ISE research brief discussing Denner et al's, "The Girl Game Company: Engaging Latina girls in information technology."
  • Lyon, L. A. (2011). Eighth-grade students stereotype science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers as masculine: An ISE research brief discussing Cho et al.’s, "Images of women in STEM fields."
  • Wingert, K. (2013). Wishful identification, gender, and scientists on television: An ISE research brief discussing Steinke et al., “Gender differences in adolescents’ wishful identification with scientist characters on television.”