We spoke with Professor Chad Forbes about his research on stereotype threat and how it undermines the success of women in STEM. Chad is a social neuroscientist in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Delaware.

Social neuroscience is a burgeoning field that uses neuroscience methodologies such as electroencephalograms (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and molecular genetics- anything that indexes neural activity, to inform social psychological theory and test a research hypothesis. Social neuroscience methods examine people in real time and can index their reaction to stimuli- even if these thought processes are unconscious or if the subjects are unaware or unwilling to acknowledge their feelings.

What is stereotype threat?

We learned that stereotype threat describes the pressure that minorities face when they are judged with negative stigma against their group, for example, “girls can’t do math” or “minorities are not good in STEM”.

We started by asking Chad for specific examples of how stereotype threat affects women and minorities in STEM. Chad described common situations involving men (or a majority group) outnumbering women (or a minority group): when people taking a standardised test such as the SAT or GRE are told to complete questions that mark gender or ethnic identity, they tend to underperform on the test. Such experiments offer counter arguments to the theory that there are biological underpinnings to why some groups underperform in certain tasks. In the absence of these situations, when people are not reminded of their minority status or when they are placed in a stereotype neutral environment, they perform comparably to the majority group.

Stereotype Threat. STEM Women
Stereotype threat. When women & minorities feel at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their group, this can affect their ability to succeed in STEM.

Initially, research by Prof. Forbes focused on identifying which groups were susceptible to stereotype threat He found that anyone with a negative stereotype or stigma associated with his/her group will suffer from stereotype threat. Conversely, this does not affect majority groups. Stereotype threat arises from expectations that society instills in us over time. A consequence of this is that some groups have negative stereotypes associated with them. In pre-test questioning, when asked how they view societal expectations, people overwhelming identify men as being better at math, and whites as more intelligent than other ethnic groups. As a result, a white male may experience a “stereotype lift phenomenon”, and actually perform slightly better than expected in a given task.

Negative effects of Stereotype Threat

Dr. Forbes’s research has also examined what happens when people succumb to these stereotype threats. Researchers observed a complicated cascade of physiological stress responses, negative appraisals and performance monitoring processes that taxed working memory- a cognitive resource that people use all the time, particularly in problem solving.

As a result of stereotype threat, subjects showed increased anxiety, increased physiological arousal, hypervigilance about making mistakes, increased levels of worry, lowering of expectations, and increased mind wandering.

This physiological response is not just restricted to performance. It can have a pronounced effect on people in the form of a social identity threat-  generating anxiety that alters behavior and cognition accordingly.

Quantifying Stereotype Threat

We asked Chad about the research supported by his award from the National Science Foundation, which quantifies intangible issues that affect stereotype threat, such as as confidence and nervousness. Chad described how stereotype threat affects attention to stereotype-confirming evidence and its downstream consequences. In a paper he published recently, Dr. Forbes describes an experiment in which women completed a math test in one of two scenarios: either they were told that it was a diagnostic test of their aptitude in math and asked to mark their gender, or the test was simply presented as a problem solving activity and subjects were not asked to mark their gender. Women received feedback on their performance while their neural activity was continuously recorded by EEG. As early as 75 milliseconds following exposure to negative feedback in stereotype threatening conditions, researchers observed a biased response in brain regions relating to attention and working memory. Enhanced activity was also observed in regions integral to processing words, and strikingly, individuals showing greater activity in these regions performed more poorly on the test. This didn’t happen when they received positive feedback. In contrast, women in stereotype neutral environments tended to show biased neural activity in response to more positive feedback on their performance.

Chad stresses that all this is happening superfast, words are popping out at the subjects while they are performing challenging tasks, and people recall negative feedback more strongly. These types of studies demonstrate a link between the neural encoding of negative feedback, and development of anxiety, ultimately to undermining performance on a difficult task.

Chad’s research found that, paradoxically, women most susceptible to negative feedback are the ones who care the most and want to succeed. These memories lay the groundwork for STEM aversion in high school girls or at the beginning of undergraduate studies.

Effects of Stereotype Threat - Chad Forbes
Effects of stereotype threat. Women most susceptible to negative feedback care most and want to succeed. Negative memories lead to STEM aversion in high school girls or university. Photo: Argonne National Laboratory, CC. 2.0. Adapted: StemWomen.net

Chad described a fascinating example of how this socialization works. One study tracked how male and female STEM faculty interacted with one another over the course of a week. Men talked to one another about their research (“How is the grant coming?’’) but when they talked to women it was mostly about social life (“How was your weekend?”). The study shows that when men “talk shop” about research, they get a psychological boost, but when men speak to women about research, the latter become demotivated possibly because men are inadvertently monopolising the conversation about their own research, rather than creating a collegial space for women to also share their own research. This triggers identity threat in women. Surprisingly, this difference was sufficient to predict women’s dis-identification with their jobs and having less interest in continuing in STEM. The men thought that they were being nice and reaching out to women, but were unaware of the negative ramifications of their behavior.

We talked about how Chad’s research addresses the myth of nature versus nurture using cutting edge scientific approaches. Using multiple neural biomarkers, he tracks how people’s brains respond to different conditions in real time.

The findings are striking: when women are in stereotype neutral context, when they are not reminded of their minority status, their brains look identical to male brains while solving problems. But introduce a subtle tweak with stereotype threat, and they perform differently! Priming the brain by triggering stereotype threat alters neural functioning.

We asked Chad whether his research showed any evidence for gender-encoding of performance in STEM fields. His answer was an emphatic No! He concludes from his research that, “Stereotype threat is a consequence of socialization: we are all humans but we can be wired up differently based on the culture that we’re reared in”.

Stereotype Threat is consequence of socialisation
“Stereotype threat is a consequence of socialization: we are all humans but we can be wired up differently based on the culture that we’re reared in”. – Prof. Chad Forbes. Photo: Argonne National Laboratory, CC 2.0 via Flickr. Adapted: StemWomen.net

Moving ahead, Chad plans to collect DNA from study participants to record single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) to build a dataset of hundreds of subjects. He is looking for gene variants that could modulate response to stereotype threat, and can be matched with neural activity. In the future, epigenetic modifications to DNA could be factored in to the research, possibly leading to more exciting insights.

Practical Outcomes 

There are many ways to counterattack stereotype threat, as we discuss in the video. This includes softening the basic arousal response, triggering different outcomes in cognitive reappraisals by learning to look at a problem as a challenge instead of a threat, and self-enhancing tricks that people can use to buffer themselves from threat. It’s important to generate awareness that people respond differently to stereotype threat, and to understand the basis of why this happens. Finally, it’s important to spread the word: to educate people about stereotype threat and its  negative consequences. That’s why we are so pleased that Prof. Forbes took the time to speak with us in this HOA and we hope you enjoy and learn from it as much as we did.

Learn More

Read more about Chad’s research and download some of his scientific articles.  Learn about his ongoing research into women in STEM.

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