Stigma and Discrimination

Part 2: Stereotype Threat

By Yeo Kee Juan

17 September 2021  |   5 min read

The first part of this series examined how stereotyping influences the way we think about and behave toward other people (read Part 1: Everyone Is A Little Biased). It also explored how being stereotyped can negatively impact a person’s health and well-being.

Yet there is a less known and less observable, but potentially damaging effect of stereotyping known as stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat is the fear or anxiety of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s social group (Steele and Aronson, 1995). This may cause cognitive impairment and result in poorer performance (Jhangiani & Tarry, 2014).

Studies have shown that just being reminded that one belongs to one group or another, such as a group stereotyped as inferior in academics, can lead to diminished self-worth and impaired ability to perform tasks (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This has a significant impact in the workplace where negative stereotypes about gender or minorities can build subtle barriers to success, through stereotype threat.

Just being reminded that one belongs to one group or another, such as a group stereotyped as inferior in academics, can lead to diminished self-worth and impaired ability to perform tasks.

Stereotype threat in the workplace

In the workplace, employees faced with stereotype threat are more likely to assume that their coworkers or superiors are biased against them due to their group membership (Casad & Bryant, 2016). This can have several effects:

  1. Negative feedback is interpreted as attacks on the employees’ inherent ability, which affects their receptivity to feedback (Roberson et al., 2003). This may cause them to discount any type of feedback, including valuable ones that could boost their learning.
  2. Employees under stereotype threat tend to become less engaged in their work for fear of potentially proving the negative assumptions right. Not having a sense of ownership over their domain may in turn exacerbate feelings of disengagement (Major et al., 1998).

  1. When exposure to stereotype threat is chronic, employees may dis-identify themselves from their work. This involves the separation of one’s personal and work identities, for example, a female engineer may separate her gender from her traditionally male-dominated role. Such threats can have adverse effects on job satisfaction and mental health (Hippel et al., 2011).

What can be done?

Regardless of a person’s actual ability, just being made aware of or being reminded of one’s stigmatised identity when performing a stereotype-relevant task can trigger stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Thus, it is within our means to reduce the effects of stereotype threat (Inzlicht & Schmader, 2011):

  1. Reframing perspectives
    Negative stereotypes can make a task seem harder from an in-group perspective. By reframing the task as a challenge rather than a threat, it can help alleviate the anxiety caused by stereotype threat (Wiesenfeld et al., 1999).
  2. Create value beyond the work task
    Underachievement is often a result of not feeling engaged, which can be due to stereotype threat (Harackiewicz et al., 2016). Find utility in the things you do to motivate yourself. See learning as helping you to accomplish your goals, and consider its relevance to life beyond the workplace.
  3. Talking about it
    Simply being aware of and discussing negative stereotypes, the effects of stereotype threat, and their irrelevance to our performance can help reduce it (Johns et al., 2005).

Although it is humanly impossible to be immune from harbouring prejudice, it does not mean that we are powerless against it. All of us play a part in creating and maintaining society’s stereotypes. We should also take deliberate action to dispel and fight stereotypes that negatively affect others and ourselves.

Kee Juan is a psychology student at the National University of Singapore (NUS). His interests lie in gaining a better understanding of psychological difficulties and their distress effects on people. He is also a passionate advocate for mental health in the community.