Howto: Stop Worrying About Female Brain Hard-Wiring and Get Smarter

This Ask a Geek Feminist question is about stereotype threat:

What can I do when stereotype threat is playing games with my head?

To give an example, I once had to take an IQ test at school in seventh grade. One section of the test included rotating three-dimensional objects in your head. The test was designed so that each section starts easy and then gets progressively harder. It is supposed to get so hard that there comes a point where you can’t continue any longer and then the tester stops that section of the test. On that section of the test, I managed to hit a window on the score because I got to the very end, having correctly answered all the questions in the object rotation section. The tester, who did these tests for a living, was astonished and he said he had never seen anyone come close to getting all of them.

As an adult, I heard the stereotype that women cannot rotate three-dimensional objects in their head. I heard it many times. Since I started hearing that, I have lost my ability to do so. I’ve tried some rather basic tests on this skill and I can hardly do any of them.

What can one do about this sort of thing?

As a female geek who is interested in science and tech discussion on the Internet (Slashdot, Digg, Hacker News, Reddit, etc.), I constantly see science and tech geeks declare over and over again that women’s brains are hard-wired against processing math, tech, and the mental rotation of 3D objects. When I was younger and already pursuing a geeky degree that involved math and tech, I took an online quiz measuring my ability to mentally rotate 3D objects to “check” if I had the “hardware requirements” to belong in my program. (I’m sure I’m not the only science-interested female student who has done something similar!) Of course, looking back, this is an absurd and unfortunate social consequence of evolutionary psychology intersecting with sexism. My math and computer course grades more directly measured my math and computer success, while my 3D mental rotation quiz score was far from the original point, which was to do well in my math and computer courses.

ReducingStereotypeThreat.org, a web site by two psychology professors from Columbia University and CUNY, lists methods to reduce stereotype threat aimed at other psychology researchers who want to reduce stereotype threat in their participants, but the web page is still useful to everyone else and research-backed.

My favourite is the last section, “Emphasizing an incremental view of intelligence”. Basically, some people generally believe that intelligence is “fixed”, while others generally believe that intelligence can be developed over time. People who believed in “fixed” intelligence tend to avoid challenging tasks and are more affected by stereotype threat. Conversely, people who believe that intelligence is malleable are more likely to focus on “improving rather than proving ability to themselves or others” and are more likely to “increase effort to further learning and to overcome obstacles”.

The section also describes a psychology experiment from 2007 involving female students and math learning:

In this study, students were randomly assigned to one of two learning environments in which they watched an educational video that taught new math concepts from either an entity [“fixed” intelligence] or an incremental [“malleable” intelligence] perspective. They then solved math problems under either stereotype threat or non-threat conditions. Results showed that when females learned the new math concepts with an entity perspective, they performed less well on the math test in the stereotype threat condition than in the non-threat condition. However, when they learned the new math concepts portrayed from an incremental perspective, there were no differences between the stereotype threat and the non-threat conditions on the math test.

Moreover, encouraging an entity theory even appears to harm performance. For instance, attributing gender differences in mathematics to genetics reduced performance of women on a math test compared with conditions in which differences were explained in terms of experience or effort. In other words, the concern with confirming abilities believed to be fixed or biologically-determined can interfere with one’s capability to perform well.

These studies suggest that stereotype threat can be reduced or even eliminated if an incremental view of ability is emphasized. Doing so involves emphasizing the importance of effort and motivation in performance and de-emphasizing inherent “talent” or “genius.” Individuals who are encouraged to think in incremental terms will tend to react more effectively to challenge and are less likely to fear confirming negative stereotypes of their group.

3 thoughts on “Howto: Stop Worrying About Female Brain Hard-Wiring and Get Smarter

  1. the15th

    As a female geek who is interested in science and tech discussion on the Internet (Slashdot, Digg, Hacker News, Reddit, etc.)

    The most important thing I’ve done to reduce stereotype threat in my life is to avoid sites like those altogether. Unfortunately, I miss out on a lot of interesting news that way. Has there ever been an organized campaign to get technology companies to stop advertising on/recruiting from them until the misogyny in their comments sections is cleaned up?

  2. steve, the pirate

    Thank you for your text.

    As a woman working in the field of physics and technology I sometimes get doubts about my abilities when reading again another of these “men are from mars and women from venus” articles.

    This rotating 3D object is, when thinking about it, doesn’t say anything about anyones abilities in higher maths. I doubt that anyone can rotate the avarage n-dimensional objects in their minds. :)

Comments are closed.