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Dweck’s research is particularly relevant to women in STEM, because she and her colleagues have found that for both middle school and college students, a growth mindset protects girls and women from the influence of the stereotype that girls are not as good as boys at math (Good et al., 2003, 2009). If a girl with a fixed mindset encounters a challenging task or experiences a setback in math, she is more likely to believe the stereotype that girls are not as good as boys in math. On the other hand, if a girl believes that doing math is a skill that can be improved with practice, she thinks, in the words of Dweck, “OK, maybe girls haven’t done well historically, maybe we weren’t encouraged, maybe we didn’t believe in ourselves, but these are acquirable skills.” In the face of difficulty, girls with a growth mindset are more likely than girls with a fixed mindset to maintain their confidence and not succumb to stereotypes. A growth mindset, therefore, can be particularly useful to girls in STEM areas because it frees them of the ideas that their individual mathematical ability is fixed and that their ability is lower than that of boys by virtue of their gender. Interestingly, in cultures that produce a large number of math and science graduates, especially women, including South and East Asian cultures, the basis of success is generally attributed less to inherent ability and more to effort (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992).
A G r o W T h M i n d S E T P r o M oT E S AC h i E v E M E n T i n S T E M
Dweck and others have also found gender gaps favoring boys in math and science performance among junior high and college students with fixed mindsets, while finding no gender gaps among their peers who have a growth mindset (Good et al., 2003; Grant & Dweck, 2003; Dweck, 2006). Dweck and her colleagues conducted a study in 2005 in which one group of adolescents was taught that great math thinkers had a lot of innate ability and natural talent (a fixed-mindset message), while another group was taught that great math thinkers were profoundly interested in and committed to math and worked hard to make their contributions (a growth-mindset message). On a subsequent challenging math test that the Why So Few? 33 students were told gauged their mathematical ability, the girls who had received the fixedmindset message, especially when the stereotype of women underperforming in math was brought to their attention, did significantly worse than their male counterparts; however, no gender difference occurred among the students who had received the growth-mindset message, even when the stereotype about girls was mentioned before the test (Good et al., 2009).
This research clearly demonstrates that a growth mindset can help girls achieve in math.
Dweck explains: “Students are getting this message that things come easily to people who are geniuses, and only if you’re a genius do you make these great discoveries. But more and more research is showing that people who made great contributions struggled. And maybe they enjoyed the struggle, but they struggled. The more we can help kids enjoy that effort rather than feel that it’s undermining, the better off they’ll be.”
A G r o W T h M i n d S E T P r o M oT E S P E r S i S T E n C E i n S T E M
Achievement is one thing, but as we’ve seen, girls and women are achieving at the same levels as boys and men in math and science by many measures yet are not persisting to the same degree in many STEM fields. Ongoing research by Dweck and her colleagues has shown that a growth mindset promotes not only higher achievement but increased persistence in STEM fields as well. Good, Rattan, and Dweck (2009) followed several hundred women at an elite university through a semester of a calculus class. Women who reported that their classrooms communicated a fixed mindset and that negative stereotypes were widespread showed an eroding sense that they belonged in math during the semester, and they were less likely to express a desire to take math in the future. Women who said that their classrooms promoted a growth mindset were less susceptible to the negative effects of stereotypes, and they were more likely to intend to continue to take math in the future. At the beginning of the semester, no difference was seen in interest, excitement, sense of belonging, or intention to continue in math, but by the end of the study, girls who were continually exposed to the fixed-mindset message along with the stereotype that girls don’t do well in math lost interest. Dweck and her colleagues are finding similar results in a current study on girls in middle school. Dweck told AAUW, “In all of our research, we’ve seen that in a fixed mindset, if you are hit with negative messages, you are much more likely to succumb and lose interest.” A growth mindset can help maintain a spark of interest.
But how much difference can a growth mindset make? Aren’t some people just born with more ability than others? While Dweck does not deny that there can be “talent differences” among students, she reminds us of the difficulty of measuring individual potential: “I don’t AAUW 34 know how much of talent—even among prodigies—comes from the fact that a person is born with an ability versus the fact that he or she is fascinated with something and passionate about it and does it all the time. I’m not saying anyone can do anything, but I am saying that we don’t know where talent comes from, and we don’t know who’s capable of what.”
M i n d S E T M AT T E r S
Dweck’s research findings are important for women in STEM, because encountering obstacles and challenging problems is the nature of scientific work. In addition, girls have to cope with the stereotype that they are not as capable as boys in math and science. When girls and women believe they have a fixed amount of intelligence, they are more likely to believe the stereotype, lose confidence, and disengage from STEM as a potential career when they encounter difficulties in their course work. The messages we send girls about the nature of intelligence matter. Eradicating stereotypes is a worthwhile but long-term goal. In the meantime, communicating a growth mindset is a step that educators, parents, and anyone who has contact with girls can take to reduce the effect of stereotypes and increase girls’ and women’s representation in STEM areas. The more girls and women believe that they can learn what they need to be successful in STEM fields (as opposed to being “gifted”), the more likely they are to actually be successful in STEM fields. Dweck’s work demonstrates that girls benefit greatly from shifting their view of mathematics ability from “gift” to “learned skill.”
r E Co M M E n d AT i o n S
• Teac h c hildren that intel lect ual skil ls c an b e acquired.
Teach students that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger and works better the more it is exercised. Teach students that every time they stretch themselves, work hard, and learn something new, their brain forms new connections, and over time they become smarter. Passion, dedication, and self-improvement—not simply innate talent—are the roads to genius and contribution.
• Pr aise c hildren f or ef f or t.
Praise children for the process they use to arrive at conclusions. It is especially important to give process feedback to the most able students who have often coasted along, gotten good grades, and been praised for their intelligence. These may be the very students who opt out when the work becomes more difficult.
• Highlight the st r uggle.
Parents and teachers can portray challenges, effort, and mistakes as highly valued.
Students with a fixed mindset are threatened by challenges, effort, and mistakes, so they may shy away from challenges, limit their effort, and try to avoid or hide mistakes. Communicate to these students that we value and admire effort, hard work, and learning from mistakes. Teach children the values that are at the heart of scientific and mathematical contributions: love of challenge, love of hard work, and the ability to embrace and learn from our inevitable mistakes. In Dweck’s words, “The message needs to be that we value taking on challenges and learning and growth.
Educators should highlight the struggle.”
Negative stereotypes about girls’ and women’s abilities in mathematics and science persist despite girls’ and women’s considerable gains in participation and performance in these areas during the last few decades. Two stereotypes are prevalent: girls are not as good as boys in math, and scientific work is better suited to boys and men. As early as elementary school, children are aware of these stereotypes and can express stereotypical beliefs about which science courses are suitable for females and males (Farenga & Joyce, 1999; Ambady et al., 2001).
Research profiled in chapter 8 verifies the prevalence of these stereotypes among adults as well (Nosek et al., 2002b). Furthermore, girls and young women have been found to be aware of, and negatively affected by, the stereotypical image of a scientist as a man (Buck et al., 2008).
Although largely unspoken, negative stereotypes about women and girls in STEM are very much alive.
A large body of experimental research has found that negative stereotypes affect women’s and girls’ performance and aspirations in math and science through a phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” Even female students who strongly identify with math—who think that they are good at math and being good in math is important to them—are susceptible to its effects (Nguyen & Ryan, 2008). Stereotype threat may help explain the discrepancy between female students’ higher grades in math and science and their lower performance on high-stakes tests in these subjects, such as the SAT-math (SAT-M) and AP calculus exam.
Additionally, stereotype threat may also help explain why fewer girls than boys express interest in and aspirations for careers in mathematically demanding fields. Girls may attempt to reduce the likelihood that they will be judged through the lens of negative stereotypes by saying they are not interested and by avoiding these fields.
Joshua Aronson is an associate professor of developmental, social, and educational psychology at New York University. His research focuses on the social and psychological influences on academic achievement, and he is internationally known for his research on stereotype threat and minority student achievement. He was the founding director of the Center for Research on Culture, Development, and Education at New York University. His forthcoming book is titled The Nurture of Intelligence.
AAUW 38 This chapter profiles the research on stereotype threat and women in science and math, highlighting the work of social psychologist Joshua Aronson. In the mid-1990s Aronson and his colleagues Claude Steele and Steven Spencer first identified and described the phenomenon of stereotype threat, the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of doing something that would confirm that stereotype (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Stereotype threat arises in situations where a negative stereotype is relevant to evaluating performance. For example, a female student taking a math test would experience an extra cognitive and emotional burden of worry related to the stereotype that women are not good at math. A reference to this stereotype, however subtle, could adversely affect her test performance. When the burden is removed, however, her performance would improve.
This phenomenon was first identified in experiments examining factors that could explain differences in academic performance among African American and white college students.
Aronson and his colleagues observed that existing research did not fully explain the gaps in academic performance between these groups. In addition to considering factors such as home and family variables, school-related variables, and peer influences, Aronson and his colleagues believed that psychological factors at the student level needed to be considered. Their theory focused on the psychological predicament rooted in stereotypical images of certain groups as intellectually inferior. They referred to this phenomenon as stereotype threat and offered it as an important factor—albeit not the sole factor—producing group differences in test performance and academic motivation.
Stereotype threat can be felt as both psychological and physiological responses that result in impaired performance. For example, Blascovich et al. (2001) found that African Americans taking an intelligence test under stereotype threat had higher blood pressure levels than whites did. No difference in blood pressure levels of African Americans and whites occurred in the nonthreat situation. Steele and Aronson (1995) found that stereotyped individuals often made more of an effort (attempted the same number of items if not more) than nonthreatened participants did but reread items more often and worked slower with less accuracy.
In one of the earliest experiments looking specifically at women, Spencer et al. (1999) recruited 30 female and 24 male first-year University of Michigan psychology students with strong math backgrounds and similar math abilities as measured by grades and test scores. All students strongly identified with math. The students were divided into two groups, and the researchers administered a math test on computers using items from the math section of the Graduate Record Exam. One group was told that men performed better than women on the test (the threat condition), and the other group was told that there were no gender differences in test performance (the nonthreat condition). Spencer et al. believed that if stereotype threat could explain gender differences in performance, then presenting the test as
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Source: Spencer et al., 1999, "Stereotype threat and women's math performance," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), p. 13.