Stereotype threat is the psychological condition of believing (even unconsciously) that due to your gender, race, or other factors for which a stereotype exists, you are not as good as others at some skill. Studies have shown that this results in lower achievement for African-Americans academically and for girls and women in math and science. How to combat this threat? Very simply.
Previous studies have shown that African-American students achieved higher grades through a simple writing exercise in which they wrote about what they valued. Now this has been extended to women in science.
At the University of Colorado, Akira Miyake asked female students in a university physics class to write about what they valued and why for 15 minutes. It could be family, creativity, work, anything at all that the students personally held in high regard.
As Ed Yong explains:
Miyake recruited 283 men and 116 women who were taking part in the university’s 15-week introductory course to physics. He randomly divided them into two groups. One group picked their most important values from a list and wrote about why these mattered to them. The other group – the controls – picked their least important values and wrote about why these might matter to other people.
This happened twice at the start of the course, and the whole thing was led by teaching assistants who didn’t know what was going on (it was a “double-blind” experiment). They, and the students, were all told that the exercise was meant to improve writing skills.
In the control group, where students wrote about why other people valued things they didn’t, men outperformed women both in their grades and on a standard test to evaluate knowledge of physics. But among the students who wrote about their own values, the gender gap almost disappeared entirely in their grades and completely disappeared in the results on the standard test.
This is astounding to me, both because of its simplicity and because of the solution’s form: affirming one’s own values.
So here is an experiment I am going to try and I’d love it if folks who read this blog would try it too. Once a week I am going to write about what I value and why for 15 minutes. I began it on Saturday while watching my kids at their swim lessons. I’m going to repeat this exercise every Saturday until the end of the year. Then what? Let’s find out!