Underrepresentation of women in STEM fields can make these women feel like “tokens.” For example, women receive as few as 19% of undergraduate physics degrees in the United States, according to the science and engineering indicators 2012 report by the National Science Board. This isolating status may “trigger worry or concern about fulfilling gender stereotypes,” write Jessi Smith and colleagues in a recent publication on how stereotype threat undermines women’s identity as research scientists.
Stereotype concerns in science environments can lead women to view their gender, an aspect of their social identity, through the lens of negative stereotypes. This social identity threat, or stereotype threat, may lead women to identify less strongly as scientists than men in the same environments.
“People feeling vulnerable to stereotype threat not only underperform on high stakes exams such as the Graduate Record Exam (see Nguyen and Ryan 2008 for review), but also suffer decrements in confidence, elevated anxiety, and an overall reduction in expectancies for academic success. The role of such performance expectancies in women and girls’ motivation for STEM has a long history within the Expectancy Value Theory literature. […] According to the theory, individuals choose, persist, and succeed in career fields/educational domains to the extent they believe that they will do well in.” – Smith et al. 2015
“[I]n situations where stereotype threat is likely to be low (e.g., in the presence of counter-stereotypic role models and experts), science identity is stronger.” – Smith et al. 2015
You might wonder, well what is the real impact of women identifying less with science in environments where they are reminded of gendered stereotypes? If it’s not self-apparent, developing and maintaining a strong identify with one’s field or status as a scientist is critical to career motivation and success. You might not stick with a given career path if you don’t have a strong inner sense that you can not only succeed along that path, but that your presence there has value and makes a difference in the world. For women, the belief that a science job will allow opportunities to connect with and help other people may be particularly important to their pursuit of that job.
In a study published in Social Psychology of Education in 2015, researchers from several US universities surveyed 388 undergraduate women enrolled in either physics laboratory classes (male-dominated) or biology laboratory classes (female-dominated). Participants were asked to respond to statements related to stereotype threat (e.g. “I worry that if I perform poorly in my science lab class, others will attribute my poor performance to my gender”), science identity (e.g. “‘I feel that being a science student is an important reflection of who I am”), confidence, performance anxiety, and perceptions of science’s utility (e.g. “science affords working with people, helping others, and serving the community”).
The researchers found that female students in the physics lab experienced greater stereotype threat then female students in the biology lab. Greater feelings of stereotype threat also predicted lower confidence and greater course performance anxiety. But most strikingly, greater feelings of stereotype threat predicted lower perceptions of the communal utility value of science, or the belief that science jobs help other people.
“Women’s science identity was associated indirectly with stereotype threat via perceptions in how much science can and does involve working with and helping other people. When women reported fewer stereotype threat concerns, they were more likely to see that science has communal utility value, and in turn greater perceived communal utility value was associated with elevated science identity.” – Smith et al. 2015
Smith et al. highlight that their results show the importance of removing stereotype cues and triggers from science environments and science classrooms. The ugly thing about stereotype threat for women in science is that it can be subconscious and triggered simply by the presence of a classroom full of men. The importance of hiring female professors to teach in currently male-dominated fields such as physics and computer science becomes readily apparent. But other stereotype cues should be taken very seriously, even and perhaps especially when they seem subtle, lighthearted or innocent.
Based on these and other findings, I hope those who approached “The Shirt” and Tim Hunt’s comments with a “what’s the big deal?” mentality can begin to understand the noxious effects of even “lighthearted” sexism on women’s motivations to pursue science, self-identities as scientists, and even their beliefs that science helps people. This is what we are doing when we say sexist things, make sexist jokes, lean subconsciously toward male candidates in hiring practices, quote male scientists more often than female scientists in media stories, comment on female scientists’ appearance at conferences, or otherwise use gendered language or metaphors when talking about STEM fields. And this must change.
 Smith, J. L., Brown, E. R., Thoman, D. B., & Deemer, E. D. Losing its expected communal value: how stereotype threat undermines women’s identity as research scientists. Social Psychology of Education, 1-24.
 Diekman, A. B., Brown, E. R., Johnston, A. M., & Clark, E. K. (2010). Seeking congruity between goals and roles a new look at why women opt out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. Psychological Science,21(8), 1051-1057.