Stereotyping: the universal performance killer

We all expect to be judged on merit, and nothing else. But research has revealed an insidious breed of bias that affects us all


According to Claude Steele, an internationally recognized social psychologist and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at UC Berkeley, it doesn’t matter what gender or race you are: where stereotypes abound, everyone is vulnerable to their damage.

He found that a group of people typically confident about their mathematical abilities — white male mathematics and engineering majors who received high scores on the math portion of the SAT — did worse on a mathematics test when told that the experiment was intended to investigate ‘why Asians appear to outperform other students on tests of mathematical ability.’

This phenomenon is known as ‘Stereotype threat’. The basic premise is that a person’s ‘social identity’—defined as group membership in categories such as age, gender, religion, and ethnicity—has significance when a person is treated according to it.

Performance anxiety

He found that when a person’s social identity is attached to a negative stereotype, that person will tend to underperform in a manner consistent with it. He attributes the underperformance to a person’s anxiety about others seeing them as that stereotype, and judging them for it. So even though everyone is vulnerable to stereotype threat, women are more likely to face it owing to the volume of negative stereotyping attached to being female.

Last year, research from Indiana University reinforced the notion that gender stereotypes about women's ability in mathematics negatively impact their performance. And in a significant twist, both men and women in the study wrongly believed those stereotypes would actually motivate them to perform better.

The growth mindset

Given that these stereotypes are out there, what are educators and leaders to do in order to give women opportunities to showcase their real potential? Aneeta Rattan, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, with her colleagues Catherine Good and Carol Dweck, identified one key factor that maintains both women’s sense of belonging and performance, even when they face negative stereotypes: a growth mindset. That is, when women perceived those around them as endorsing the idea that intelligence can grow (rather than the idea that intelligence is fixed), they found that women performed highly and felt that they belonged even when these same women also perceived a high degree of stereotyping.

Based on this research Rattan suggests that business leaders emphasize that skills and abilities grow and develop over time (rather than emphasizing fixed talent as the source of success). If they don’t, there’s a very real risk they could undermine the performance of not only the women, but of any group or anyone at the company.

Rattan got her start working in underserved schools in inner-city New York, giving free college test prep to kids from Harlem. It awakened in her a passion for understanding how to raise persistence, performance, and pursuit of education and achievement among underrepresented groups.

Rattan summarizes three mindsets and beliefs that everyone can use to create an atmosphere of acceptance to maximise the potential of everybody in the workplace:

  • People can learn and grow over time
  • Everyone belongs here
  • Everyone here has high potential

Treating difference differently

Her research suggests that if everyone in a workplace – leaders especially – adopt these mind sets, it will help everyone, but women or any group that is underrepresented will especially benefit. “If people think their abilities are fixed or feel like they don’t belong, you essentially cripple them from showing their potential,” she says. Her early work in Harlem made it patently clear that throwing resources at issues of inequity isn’t enough: you have to address the psychology too. “Some people are up against such a strong headwind because of persistent stereotypes and biases that they simply can’t showcase their potential. We need to scaffold people against the pushback from the world.” This ‘scaffolding’ is essential for a woman or someone from a minority community to have an equal chance to showcase their abilities at work in an environment that either explicitly or implicitly excludes them. This is vital, because the alternative is they’re on their way out: a lose/lose situation for all involved.

Rattan wants us to get to a place where we think about difference differently. Two-hundred million years of evolution have made homo-sapiens hypersensitive to people who don’t look or sound like we do, and it’s not working to our advantage any more. “We know that humans encode difference and group membership very quickly, so it’s unrealistic to expect them not to notice it. But assumptions that make us think ‘I know everything about these people’, or ‘I know how this person will act’, can change.”

When will women in business no longer have to battle against the unseen forces of gender stereotypes? “It’s out there in the world and will be for a while. It takes time to change. We can’t just wait for that change and leave cohort after cohort of women and minorities waiting too. With these types of interventions, we can make it happen quicker.”

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