What Should Leaders Do About Stereotype Threat?

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

There are many organizational mechanisms that push women and people of color out of the professional workplace. Not least of these is a subtle, systemic bias toward white males that gives people who are part of the dominant group the benefit of the doubt, while those on the outside seemingly have to prove themselves over and over again.

Perhaps the most insidious factor driving women and minorities out of the professional workplace is the subtle, gnawing anxiety created by stereotype threat.

Dr. Maya Beasley, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, has spent years studying the effects of stereotype threat. “Stereotype threat is the term given for the anxiety individuals get when they are in situations where there are negative stereotypes about how their particular group performs in those situations. There’s a pressure to perform well and not to represent the negative group stereotype,” she explained.

Studies have shown that this anxiety leads to decreased concentration, increased heart rate, and nausea, “factors which would make any one freeze up during a test,” Dr. Beasley commented. Ultimately the fear of conforming to the negative stereotype leads people to perform worse – essentially, they fulfill the stereotype because they are afraid of fulfilling the stereotype.

While much of the research on stereotype threat focuses on how it affects people during specific events – a math test, for example – Dr. Beasley believes stereotype threat can affect people over the course of their university study or professional careers. Her research suggests that stereotype threat is sapping STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields of diverse talent. “It leads people to disengage from a situation where they feel this kind of anxiety,” she explained.

But, she suggests, it doesn’t have to be this way. Stereotype threat is driving talented people away from the academic and professional world, and leaders of these institutions can and should do something about it.

Stereotype Threat in Organizations
According to Dr. Beasley’s work, stereotype threat is causing women and people of color to leave certain fields at an alarming rate. “My research suggests that stereotype threat is not just isolated to events like tests, but to prolonged experiences, like pursuing a course of study. There are strong pervasive stereotypes about the performance abilities of certain groups of people with respect to specific fields and people within these groups are pretty aware of them. This awareness leads students to question whether they want to avoid participation in the very activities that lead to success within these fields.”

For example, she says, “Someone may wonder whether a professor thinks their question is a bad one because they are Black or because they are female, and that might make them less likely to ask.”

Ultimately, this leads people in the minority to leave. “Women and minorities are just as likely as white males to pursue degrees in STEM fields at the beginning of college, but they leave these fields at a much greater rate than white men,” she said.

In her next book, Dr. Beasley is examining the results of stereotype threat in the professional workplace. She said, “In a domain like the corporate workplace that is highly biased and dominated by white men, there are a number of stereotypes at play, for example that women or Asian Americans are meek, or that African Americans and Hispanics are hot-headed or prone to violence. It’s likely that these groups have encountered stereotypes growing up or on college campuses, and they are likely to encounter them at work. Trying to cultivate a contrary identity can be tiresome and it’s hard to shrug a stereotype off.”

There’s also research to support that when people behave contrary to a stereotype, they may be penalized. “For example, studies show that women who are aggressive are not rewarded in the same way as men.”

Eventually, the stress and anxiety of dealing with stereotypes day in and day out can cause talented people to leave the corporate workplace for a more inviting environment. “Most women and minorities tend to recognize that dealing with stereotypes is literally exhausting,” she said. “At some point, women and people of color are tired of warding off stereotypes and they may seek out a situation that is safer or where stereotypes are less pervasive.”

What Leaders Can Do
Even though the entry-level workforce is more diverse than ever before, diversity drops off sharply at every rung of the corporate ladder. This can be damaging and expensive to companies that have invested in their employees’ professional development. What’s more, research shows that diversity can benefit a company’s bottom line, because of more thoughtful discussion and decision making, not to mention simply having a broader pool of talented people to draw from.

Therefore, any corporate leaders who say they value the competitive edge that comes from workforce diversity should take an active role in diminishing stereotype threat at their company. Dr. Beasley says that one of the most important things they can do is acknowledge that stereotype threat is a real problem. “What seems to work is programs recognizing that stereotypes exist,” she suggested.

Secondly, they need to commit real resources to thoughtful training programs around dealing with stereotypes and set performance goals for groups. “Programs that are remedial are largely ineffective and in fact harmful,” she said. “There is strong evidence that programs that are very rigorous have strong success.”

“They involve setting high goals for groups – for example in the class room this might be a GPA, and in the corporate space it could be a sales goal. And then recognizing the success of individuals who have risen to the challenge.”

Leaders also need to communicate frequently and carefully about why they value diversity. “If companies are really committed to diversity they have to make that commitment clear, not only to their employees but also to their managers and leadership. It goes beyond just putting a brown face in a brochure or on a website, or sending memos to staff about diversity. Diversity really has to be a primary goal and it has to be incentivized.”

In her book, Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America’s Young Black Elite, Dr. Beasley suggests that one way to incentivize professors to deal with stereotype threat is to evaluate them on how many students of color they mentored or recruited to the field of study. “This can also be applied to companies – not necessarily through quotas, but by rewarding signs of progress and attaching pay incentives to diversity. If diversity is a genuine goal of a company, it should be putting its money where it’s mouth is,” she said.

In addition to these tactics, she said, companies should reconsider how they approach formal affinity groups. “Providing minority groups with some place where they can feel less isolated can be important. In the long term, isolation effects productivity, and it can be valuable for people to have a place where they can discuss tactics with one another and learn about opportunities.”

But, she added, it’s important that companies take these groups seriously as a potential source of valuable information and innovation. “Companies should show they are actually listening, as opposed to just having the group to appease people. It can be a valuable resource to companies in terms of reprovement and innovation. But that institutional buy-in is important.”

2 Responses

  1. Melissa, thank you for this wonderful article. I’ve not heard the term “stereotype threat,” but it’s a great one. It brings into sharp focus the hatchet-ready-to-fall that so many of my female clients are powerfully aware of.

    I find that women leaders often shy away from expressing themselves directly, for an ever-present fear that they’ll be branded with what I call the “Scarlet B”. For fear of being labeled as bitchy or bossy (or, for African American women, “angry black woman”), too many women feel they must hold back, tread lightly, and speak in a way that men can “handle.”

    These adjustments that women are making to the threat of being stereotyped has far-reaching consequences. Organizations lose out on the very perspectives that diversity could bring them. They lose out on vibrant debate. They also lose out on all the energy that’s trapped inside women who are necessarily occupied with monitoring their every action and word. And for the women themselves, it’s just plain exhausting. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to keep oneself small.

  2. Lauren O.

    Great article, I have some co-workers who are dealing with the effect of this right now. Before today, we had no words to define it.