Are Gender Stereotypes "Motivating"? This Study Reveals That They're Not, No Matter What People Might Think

Indiana University recently released a study suggesting gender stereotypes negatively impact women's performance in math. Surprise! OK, so maybe we already knew this. There's at least one study published a year letting us know that stereotypes and discrimination are linked to women's performance in one field or another. What's interesting about this study, though, is that researchers didn't just look at how gender stereotypes affect women's overall performance; they also looked at how observers thought women placed under negative conditions would perform.

Head researcher Kathryn L. Boucher and her team rounded up 150 or so male and female participants and gave them 10 minutes to solve difficult math problems without scrap paper. (Insert horrifying SAT flashback here, am I right?) Before the test began, participants were told that researchers were trying to find out if women were generally worse at math than men. Half of the participants took the test and answered questions about their expected performance, while the other half were asked only to predict how they thought women would feel in this type of situation and how they would perform.

The results? The study found that even when people know women were placed in situations where they faced negative stereotypes, their predictions were that women would be able to overcome them and perform just fine. Observers actually reported negative gender stereotypes as a "motivating challenge" to women or put more simple, people basically think that sexism is kind of motivating.

So what does Boucher think about her findings? The consequences of these perceptions are significant. The disconnect between reality and perception in these scenarios could translate to reduced support for programs and policies that mitigate the impact of negative gender stereotypes, since people do not think they affect real-world performance. Said Boucher, "While many factors can impact performance outside a controlled environment be it the classroom or the boardroom it's unlikely that performance evaluators currently consider negative stereotypes about women as a serious cause for impaired performance, and so it is unlikely that they will take steps to reduce them."

Exactly. If people think gender discrimination doesn't have negative affects, then why do anything about it? It would be easier to think that women just don't perform as well as men do and gender discrimination has nothing to do with it.

But that's where the results of this research might come in handy. Said Boucher, "Thoughtful applications of this study's findings, however, could help address women's achievement gaps, and increase their representation, in the fields where they're most negatively stereotyped. Recognizing the problem is the first step to addressing it."

Hopefully we can take the findings from this study to heart. Not only do we need to continue to end gender discrimination and recognize that it negatively impacts women's performance, but we also need to focus on changing the perception of discrimination. The perception that you're not going to be as good at something because you were born with a vagina isn't a plus. It creates anxiety and self-doubt among women and girls, not motivation.

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