Can Stereotyping Girls Harm Boys Too?

| March 9, 2012 | 15 Comments
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When Larry Summers, then the president of Harvard, made his infamous remark in 2005 about “intrinsic aptitude” in explaining part of the gap between men and women’s performance in math and science, he was accused of making it harder for women and girls to succeed in those fields. He wasn’t blamed for hobbling the performance of men and boys—but maybe he should have been.

According to new research, both males and females do worse on a spatial reasoning task when they’re told that intrinsic aptitude accounts for the gender gap in the test’s results—even though the gap favors men.

In the study, published in the February issue of the journal Learning and Individual Differences, psychologist Angelica Moè told a group of 201 high school students that they would be taking a test that measured how well they could mentally manipulate imagined objects. They were also told that males perform better than females on this exercise, known as the Mental Rotation Test. Such pre-test comments are a standard way of inducing what psychologists call “stereotype threat.”

“What makes the difference is the belief that failures are dependent on genetic reasons.”

Research shows that when women or minorities are reminded before being evaluated that the group to which they belong commonly scores poorly, they themselves do worse than if they had received no such reminder. Anxiety about confirming the negative stereotype hampers their performance.

But Moè went a step further. She divided the students into four groups and offered each one a particular explanation for women’s comparative disadvantage. One group was told that the gap resulted from genetic differences between men and women. A second group was told that time limits were the problem: women could do as well as men on the test, but they were more affected by restrictions on the amount of time they could take to work on it. A third group was told that other people’s stereotypes were to blame, making women feel less able than they are. And a fourth group, acting as a control, was simply told again that men perform better on the task than women. Then all the groups took the test.

The results: When women were given an external reason for females’ poor performance—time limits or others’ stereotypes—they did better on the test. When they were given an internal reason—their own deficient genes—they did worse. But the study’s really striking finding was that men also did worse when told that genes were the cause of the gender gap.

It turns out that genetic explanations for performance aren’t good for anybody: women are convinced that their inferior genes won’t allow them to compete, and men worry that they won’t live up to the claims made for their supposedly superior Y chromosome. “It does not matter if the genetic explanation is really true or to what extent it is true,” Moè writes. “What makes the difference is the belief that failures or difficulties are dependent on genetic reasons.”

When genetic explanations are “really true,” we should respect them as solid scientific evidence. But loose talk about the genetic basis of ability—whether in speeches by college presidents or in hype-filled newspaper headlines—may well harm the performance of everyone, male and female alike.

Parents and educators can push back against such talk by emphasizing at every opportunity the malleable nature of intelligence—pointing out, for example, that performance on tasks like the Mental Rotation Test can be improved with training and practice. And test-takers can “prime” their own belief in flexible intelligence by saying to themselves, “I can do well if I try really hard,” or “With practice I will get better at this.” These aren’t cheesy self-affirmations, but truthful statements that will put us in the frame of mind to do our best.


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  • Tsoanra Inwix

    Stereotyping is accepted because it is the semblance of order. No one plans to be the dictated piece in the order, so the order is incidental in their private logic: “order is for other people; I’m too profound to be in order.”.

    So applied attitudes may make a “helpless woman” out of a girl, but she isn’t as concerned with that as with hiding how she breaks out of the mold of order without getting caught. If we make her “the wonder woman” instead she still has the same agenda: breaking out and not getting caught doing it.

    To take psychology to a serious level we have to go beyond the appearance of order and approach what no one admits is happening. Behavioralist does this at

  • Anna7271

    The question posed in the title of this article is absurd. Stereotyping hurts everyone. Deciding what a person is capable of doing or should do based on his or her sex organs is disastrous at best. It is high time this nation treat all people as equally valuable–not only should they be able to choose anything, what they choose is equally valuable. Systematically grooming girls for one sort of career and boys for another, while simultaneously valuing male-typical careers over female-typical careers hamstrings girls and boys. Equality is not just about equal access, but also needs to include equitable value (i.e., not prizing engineers with 4-year degrees more highly than nurses or teachers with 4-year degrees).  

    • Rachel147

       Anna I completely agree with everything that you are saying – except that there are actual neurological differences between men and women [or in this case, boys and girls] because of sex hormones [estrogen vs testosterone] – and subsequently, among other things differences in learning styles [i.e. women/girls tend to be better at multi-tasking, whereas men/boys tend to be better at focusing on one task at a time] — I think the important point of this study is that negative stereotypes harm everyone – and also that regardless of physiological differences with support and encouragement everyone’s performance improves.

      • Vter

        We don’t end up in two neurological bins. There is greater diversity that what we will usually allow. So even when we come down to physiology the black/white or male/female is not as especially helpful.

  • Brienne Calmer

    The effect isn’t about gender stereotyping or racial stereotyping.  It’s about being taught your potential is fixed- high or low- rather than being taught that your effort will make a difference.  Tell children they are smart, and they give up on a difficult task (eg solving a math problem) sooner, because if they fail, they’re proving they’re not smart.  Tell them they give good effort, and they will try harder.  The gender question is secondary.

  • BStone

    No.  Summers’ point was that no one has investigated the hypothesis that there could be a biological basis for the observed achievement gaps between males and females.  At the very least, start your article truthfully.

    Otherwise, the experimental result outlined above is already taught in educational psychology, and it is an important one.

  • Anonymous

    This issue has already been recognized by minorities which realized by lowering the standard in  schools during affirmative action it lowered expectations for all students.  This in turn dropped the ranking of American schools in general.  We knew this back in the 70′s when Affirmative Action started (to lower expectations for minority students).

  • No

    With only 201 test subjects and 4 groups and no replicates this conclusion is a big stretch.  Boys don’t sit around and worry about others expectations. Boys tend to focus and get into what they do and generally don’t really care about that nonsense.  We are not all the same as this author is trying to suggest with this weak study.

  • Adeel

    Thank you for sharing such a great idea. We live with such stereotype threat everyday. Not just gender rather within males or females there are numerous example where certain ideals are exemplified for others. In such situations, I have noticed that how people live with low profile by having a false belief that they can never be as good as others. As a result we have less original thinker and more followers. 

  • Claire

     Can’t believe any article would reference stereotype threat without crediting Claude Steele.  Despicable.

  • Awarnld

    Sticks and stones will hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me.  I doubt very much that the above test is measuring anything but likely chance differences.  How many people were in each group?  How big were the differences?  How was the data taken and analysed?  How many times was the trial repeated?  I seriously doubt that a few words spoken to a group before taking a test could have significant impact on the overall pervormance of the group.  And how about the distribution of the scores?  Mucho left unsaid in this report 

  • Julianpenrod

    To begin with, that doesn’t seem to affect the many groups across the planet that conlcuded they were better than everyone else and continued to prove it. The English, for example, never made a secret of thinking they were the paragon of the world, and went on to create apparently the first global empire. One wonders, then, what effect shows like “Roseanne”, “Designing Women” and “Cybill”, that depicted men as nothing more than sperm packages, necessary only for procreation, did to inhibit women! Assuming the results are correct and not fabricated to get the “researchers” some quick publicity before they quietly pull back and let “science” rewrite itself with assertions “contrary to previous beliefs”, it should be pointed out that the “experiment” forgets one point. It’s an expeiment. The specific conditions of experimental surroundings can be very different from the real world. In the real world, people are involved in many things, so even if they are told the supposed performance of a group, when it comes to them, they’re often thinking about something else entirely. And if this effect is real, what ethics does a “researcher” have subjecting test subjects to something that purportedly can damage them irretrievably?

  • Trenalg

    Stereotyping is wrong. 

  • Karen

    I still can’t believe there hasn’t been a huge negative reaction to the new Sylvan Learning Center commercial.  A mom with a terrified look on her face runs from the house after her son asks for her help on his math homework.  Kids get information about who is capable of achieving on a daily basis.  We need to help see that they get the correct information so they realize their abilities and use them to their fullest.

  • Dr. Riyaz

    The debate of nature vs nurture continues. In India where I live I find women to be bad drivers, and the most satisfying reason to explain this sexual disparity that I can think of is the social context of the country, a place where women have started driving quite recently. In western countries this disparity is a lot minimized, though not at a zero. Search YouTube for women drivers for instance.

    I believe cognitive and to some extend physical attributes, those not requiring physical strength though can almost be equal in both sexes. Where the difference lies is in emotional abilities and temperaments. Men may always be violent and destructive and women always good mothers. Domestic abuse will never be a problem faced by men. Only time will say if such paradigms shift in the future to a world of absolute sexual sameness.