It frustrates me when people use stereotypes. I don’t think people realise how damaging stereotypes can truly be. Although they are used to be funny and to make a joke, often there is so much more that these stereotypes are doing than making people laugh.
A “stereotype” is a cognitive shortcut — that is, it allows your brain to make a snap judgment based on immediately visible characteristics such as gender, race, or age. Your brain is hardwired to make quick calls, and that’s ok. The problem comes when we start to apply those stereotypes beyond that immediate impulse. That’s called “bias,” which is basically a belief that a stereotype is true. For example, the stereotype that girls are bad at math can lead to the suggestion that some innate difference between women and men leads to this discrepancy.
In reality, however, girls and women are just as capable as boys and men when it comes to math. The problem is that we live in a culture that bombards girls and women with the notion that math is hard and that they don’t need to worry their pretty little heads about it. And the well-documented “stereotype threat” means that when you hear that you aren’t supposed to be good at something, you underperform, often unconsciously.
In the AAUW research report Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, my colleagues compiled and analyzed several studies showing that any time students were primed with the directions that men were better than women at a certain skill, the men outperformed the women on the subsequent test of that skill. But when test takers were told that men and women performed equally well in that same skill, the test results evened out. In some cases, the women outperformed the men.
What we believe can really influence what we achieve in our lives, if we believe that we can’t be good at something then chances are we won’t be. This is why stereotypes need to be broken down, its not just “banter” and until people start realising the harm and limitations that stereotypes are putting on people then things aren’t going to get any better. Also from AAUW, here are some things you can do about the whole stereotyping situation:
As evidenced by the test takers described in Why So Few. You can do something to curb the negative effects of bias and stereotypes. Here’s how to get started.
- Take the implicit bias test yourself. Visit implicit.harvard.edu and see what biases based on gender, sexuality, age, and race you hold.
- Admit that you have those biases — it’s ok! It’s what you do next that matters.
- Keep those biases in mind and take steps to correct them by slowing down and recognizing where they might be coming into play in your life. Are your “gut feelings” about job candidates valid or the product of biases? Are you discounting what a colleague is saying because of your biases? Educators, are biases affecting how you teach, advise, and evaluate students? Parents, are you sending different messages to your sons and daughters?
- Expose yourself to different experiences. By stepping out of your usual routines, you might better understand people who are different from you or how stereotypes came to be. Travel and education can go a long way toward mitigating biases.
- Raise awareness of biases. The first step to changing a problem is admitting you have one — and society has a problem. Have conversations with friends and encourage them to take the implicit bias test. And if you’re a college student, go ahead and apply for a Campus Action Project grant, sponsored by Pantene to take steps to fight against bias and stereotypes at your school.
Hopefully, in time, we will be able to destroy the barriers that stereotypes are causing and begin to see that we are all unique individuals, each one of us as different as snowflakes are to each other. We are so much more than the stereotypes that are created for us. We don’t have to fit inside any one box, we are and always will be multi-faceted human beings.