This is a guest blog post by Ulli Hain (Twitter: @ulli_hain, Email: hain.ulli[at]gmail.com). Ulli is a postdoctoral researcher in the field of autophagy and also a science writer/blogger. Her blog Bench and Beyond reports on interesting scientific studies and explores life as a scientist including issues of gender and science.
While previous studies have supported the idea that negative stereotypes hinder women’s athletic and cognitive performance on a range of tests, those studies all looked at tasks with preexisting stereotypes. For example women score worse on math tests when reminded of old “adages” about women and math.
Pavlova and her colleagues instead wanted to see how stereotype impacts an area where no gender difference exists. Could a fabricated stereotype change the way women and men perform on a test?
They chose the event arrangement (EA) test, used on certain modern IQ tests to measure nonverbal reasoning skills. Participants arrange cards depicting scenes, such as a man fishing, cooking over a campfire, and preparing for a trip, in a logical order to create a story. Scores are based on the number of correct sequences and amount of time required.
117 college students were split into three groups and given different instructions for the test. The first group was given standard instructions on the task. A second group was additionally told: “females usually perform worse on this task” while the third group was told: “males usually perform worse on this task.”
Men and women performed equally well when no stereotyped messages were given. When the group was told that women usually perform worse, women’s scores on the test decreased. In contrast, men’s scores actually increased, perhaps reflecting that their confidence was boosted by the perceived weakness of women. helped boost that they thrived on their perceived advantage.
The most surprising findings came from the group that was told that men usually do worse on the test. Men’s performance was diminished as expected, but instead of improving women’s scores, they dropped just as much as men.
Pavlova and her colleagues also looked at positive messages. Telling participants that women are usually better at the EA test modestly improved women’s scores without affecting men. However, the opposite was not true. Women’s performance was even more hurt by being told that men are better at the test than the more explicit message that women are worse.
What clearly emerges from the study is that women are more susceptible to stereotyping than men. The only time men’s performance declined was when given the explicit negative male message.
Why are women more impacted by the stereotypes than men? Although controlling for preexisting stereotypes on this specific test, researchers cannot escape society’s influence on women, which begins at an incredibly early age. Women are constantly under the threat of stereotype. And women who break stereotypes face harsh criticism not faced by men, such as criticism of working mothers who use daycare or the perception of women who speak up as being aggressive or bossy rather than being leaders.
The researchers suggest that since women have a history of being typecast, they may misinterpret the message “males are usually worse” to mean that if men have a hard time with the test, women will have an even harder time.
More and more studies confirm the existence of subtle forms of bias against women at all levels of society. It is a major finding that these subtle biases can have even greater psychological consequences than more blatant and bygone forms of sexism. Interventions are needed to combat existing stereotypes at an early age.
Pavlova, M., Weber, S., Simoes, E., & Sokolov, A. (2014). Gender Stereotype Susceptibility PLoS ONE, 9 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114802