I Will Not Let You Define Me – But I Can’t Escape the Impact of Your Definition

Research has shown that high-achieving, mathematically talented young women underperform in advanced mathematics compared to their male counterparts.   The reason isn’t what you would expect, though.   It has nothing to do with genetics or biological abilities.   It has nothing to do with motivation.   It has everything to do with bigger, harder questions.

Claude Steele hypothesized that their underperformance was tied to what he calls “stigmatization pressure”.    To explain “stigmatization pressure”, he refers to a well-known experiment that was conducted in an elementary class shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.  This experiment was then repeated for a documentary.   In the experiment, students in the class are grouped into two groups.   Blue-eyed children are treated well.   Brown-eyed children are stigmatized – they are forced to wear special collars, are socially isolated, and academically down-trodden.   Not surprisingly, the academic performance of the brown-eyed children falls.   On the second day, roles are reversed.   The academic performance of the brown-eyed children rises and that of the blue-eyed children falls.   The stigmatization of being of perceived as of lesser ability, of lesser value directly impacted the students ability to perform academically.

Dr Steele examined data comparing the mathematical performance of males and females in advanced mathematics.    He compared students who fell within the same SAT score band upon admission to University of Michigan.   He found that the women underperformed their male counterparts.   He hypothesized that this was a result of “stigmatization pressure”.   The women, whether they believed it or not, were aware of the stereotype that women are not as good at math as men.   This knowledge created a pressure to not confirm that stereotype.   When women took a test, they carried additional pressure that men did not carry because they did not face the same stereotype.    The stigmatization pressure negatively impacted their academic performance.   He conducted experiments to confirm his hypothesis.   (The details are in his book Whistling Vivaldi – How Stereotypes affect us and What We Can Do). 

“..the results were dramatic.   They gave us a clear answer.   Among participants who were told the test did show gender differences, where the women could still feel the threat of stigma confirmation, women did worse than equally skilled men, just as in the earlier experiment.   But among participants who were told the test did not show gender differences, where the women were free of confirming anything about being a woman, women performed at the same  high level as equally skilled men.   Their underperformance was gone. ” 

For me, this is personal.   Deeply personal.   I was that young woman in advanced math and engineering classes.   I know that pressure.    I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I felt constant pressure to be perfect.   On my first day of Intro to Electrical Engineering, a male peer made a comment about women not belonging in the class.   In my junior year, my electronic professor made a comment that is seared into my brain.   “Oh, good.   We have one girl for each lab section, that way we can all have a good laugh.”   It should have cost him his job.   It certainly intimidated me.   I had no prior knowledge and was going to be expected to use a bunch of equipment that I had never even seen before.   And, there was no way I was going to do anything but defy his opinion about me just because I was female.   I had to be perfect.   I don’t know if I underperformed.   I did well and went on  to a great graduate program and a great job as an  electrical engineer.   I do know what stigmatization pressure is, though, and it is not pretty.  I can refuse to let someone else define me, but I can’t escape their definition because I have to expend an awful lot of energy  defying that stereotype.

The personal element of this conversation influences much of what I do in my classroom.   I can’t protect my girls from that stereotype outside the walls of my room.   I  can give them an environment in which they are celebrated.   I can give them an environment in which they gain some real hands-on exposure to engineering so that they won’t find that lab experience quite so intimidating.   I can tell them that I think they would make incredible engineers.    I can try to give them such a strong sense of themselves that they will defy the stereotypes they face.   Is it enough, though?   How do you fight someone else’s idea?

I haven’t finished the book yet, so I don’t know what Dr Steele has to say about what I can or should do for my girls.   I am compelled to find answers, answers about how to help my girls and other under-represented minorities meet their full potential.


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