While women perform as good as men when stereotype threat is eliminated, they perform substantially worse than equally qualified men did when told that the test produced gender differences in the past


When women perform math, unlike men, they risk being judged by the negative stereotype that women have weaker math ability. That’s what this study calls the stereotype threat. To understand the effect of such a threat on women’s performance, three studies were conducted.

The first one showed, and so confirmed previous literature, that women underperform on difficult math tests but do as good as men on easy ones. This was observed among a highly selected sample of men and women.

The second study demonstrated that the difference in performance on difficult math tests could be eliminated when the stereotype threat is lowered. Thus when the observed group is told that the test has never shown some performance between men and women, test takers perform as well no matter their gender. However, when test takers were told that the test produced gender differences in the past – and so the threat was high - women performed substantially worse than equally qualified men did.

The last experiment replicated this finding with a less highly selected population and with a less clear stereotype threat on one of the groups. Thus, while one group was told the test never produced gender differences in the past, the other was told nothing specific. The results implied quite the same things as in the second study. The stereotype threat does have an effect on women’s math performance.

This research also has implications for the remaining controversy over the role of biology versus environment in mathematics performance.


Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance

Steven J. Spencer - University of Waterloo, Claude M. Steele - Stanford University & Diane M. Quinn - University of Michigan, June 1998