Neil deGrasse Tyson on stereotypes, societal expectations, and women and minorities in science

I recently saw this clip from a panel on which Neil deGrasse Tyson sat, where he addressed the question of whether genetics can explain why there are fewer women in science, as was suggested by Larry Summers when he was the President of Harvard. In his answer, Tyson (an astrophysicist who is Director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of Cosmos) talks about the obstacles he faced due to being black in science, the stereotypes society has about black men, and systematic biases preventing women and underrepresented minorities from succeeding in science. This fits in well with my recent posts on stereotype threat and the underrepresentation of women in NSF’s Waterman Award.

I’m transcribing it here because I think his response was great and I hope this leads to more people seeing it:

I’ve never been female, but I have been black my whole life. So let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access to equal opportunity that we find in the black community as well as in the community of women, in a white male dominated society…When I look at, throughout my life – I’ve known that I wanted to do astrophysics since I was nine years old on a first visit to the Hayden Planetarium…I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expression of these ambitions. And all I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was, hands down, the path of most resistance through the forces of nature, the forces of society. Any time I expressed this interest, teachers would say, “Don’t you want to be an athlete?” I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of expectation of the people in power. So, fortunately, my depth of interest was so deep, and so fuel-enriched, that every one of these curveballs that I was thrown and fences that were built in front of me and hills that I had to climb, I’d just reach for more fuel and I kept going.

Now here I am, one, I think, of the most visible scientists in the land and I want to look behind me and say, “Where are the others who might have been this?” And they’re not there. And I wonder, what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not simply because the forces of society had prevented at every turn? At every turn! To the point where I have security guards follow me as I go through department stores presuming that I am a thief? I walked out of a store one time and the alarm went off and so they came running to me. I walked through the gate at the same time a white male walked through the gate. And that guy just walked off with the stolen goods, knowing that they would stop me and not him. That’s an interesting sort of exploitation of this. What a scam that was! …

So, my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks in the sciences and you don’t find women in the sciences, I know that these forces are real and I had to survive them in order to get where I am today. So before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.

Stereotype threat and ally work

When reading Whistling Vivaldi to learn more about stereotype threat, one thing that really struck me was something discussed towards the end of the book: the idea that fear of being seen as racist (or sexist) might lead people to disengage. In the book, this was discussed in terms of things like where people choose to sit on a plane, with the idea being that a white person might choose not to sit next to a black person not because they are prejudiced, but because they fear that, if they do so, they will say or do something that will be seen as racially insensitive. That is, the fear of confirming the stereotype of white people being racially insensitive (or men being sexist) might lead people to avoid interactions with racial or ethnic minorities (or women).

This got me wondering: do people avoid doing ally work because they fear being seen as racist (or sexist or homophobic or whatever)? By “ally work”, I mean work by people who are members of a privileged group that aims to improve conditions for members of an underprivileged group. Steele’s book would suggest that they do. And, since we know that stereotype threat most strongly affects people who care the most strongly, this would mean that some of the people who care the most about improving the climate for people from underrepresented groups might be the most likely to withdraw from ally work.

I have certainly had some conversations that have made me uncomfortable; I think that’s an unavoidable side effect of having conversations regarding race and gender and ethnicity and privilege. But I think those discussions are so important to have – because they are central to the goal of increasing diversity in the sciences – that I persist. And, yes, having these conversations means that I have been called out on my privilege in some cases. But I agree with this great post by Andrew David Thaler that this is like being told your fly is down – it’s no fun, but it’s preferable to walking around with your fly down all day.

What can be done to help draw people in who don’t engage in ally work because of fears of being seen as insensitive or bigoted? One thing that Claude Steele’s work suggests is that, when discussing race (or gender issues or whatever the sensitive topic is), it helps to acknowledge that tension is normal and common and to frame the discussions as a learning experience. His research suggests that telling people that they won’t be judged based on what they say backfires and makes people more likely to worry about being judged. (This is discussed on pages 208-209 of Whistling Vivaldi.)

The discomfort that can come from having these discussions seems likely to drive a phenomenon that was found in orchestras as the proportion of women first increased: the climate initially got worse. Members of orchestras with 12-48% women reported lower satisfaction, stability, and integrity than those with 1-11% women. For some (but not all) of those measures, things improved when women reached roughly proportional representation. This suggests that, as the number of minority grad students, postdocs, and faculty initially increases, a lot of departments might be in for some awkward conversations. Steele’s work suggests that, as departments have discussions about issues related to improving the climate for underrepresented groups, it might be worth trying to frame them as opportunities to learn more about other groups, and to acknowledge that the process is likely to make people uncomfortable sometimes. (see also postscript 2)

Improving the climate for underrepresented groups in the sciences will not be easy, and people working towards this goal will surely be pulled out of their comfort zones. But hopefully enough people will agree that, even though it’s hard, it’s worth pursuing.


Postscript 1
After writing this post, I heard this NPR story on racial and gender biases in faculty approached by students who are interested in mentoring. At first, I wondered if the pattern reported in that piece would be explainable by the idea laid out in this post. But I don’t think it is, since I don’t think it could explain why both male and female faculty were less likely to respond (and, if they did respond, to respond favorably) to women, since women shouldn’t be facing fear of being stereotyped as being sexist. Instead, it seems more likely that it might be due to implicit biases (and other factors).

That piece also covers another thing that is brought up in Whistling Vivaldi which is that people from privileged groups – groups that benefit from positive identity contingencies – assume everyone was evaluated the same way, and that they achieved their successes based solely on merit. That is, they tend not to recognize the advantages they had due to their identity.

Postscript 2
Thanks to a tweet from Emily Weigel, I just saw this press release that suggests that talking about class differences can improve the performance of first-generation college students.

Related posts
1. What stereotype threat is and some of the evidence for it
2. What can be done to counter stereotype threat
3. Evidence for implicit biases

Countering stereotype threat

Note: This is the second in a series of posts about stereotype threat, which is the idea that negative stereotypes about a particular group can cause members of that group to underperform. The first post covered what stereotype threat is and some of the evidence for it; tomorrow’s post will talk about how stereotype threat might influence ally work. There will also be a post with a transcription of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s thoughts on the obstacles he’s had to overcome. These posts also link with an earlier post of mine on the implicit biases that we all have.

If yesterday’s post convinced you that stereotype threat is a problem (and I hope it did), you will now hopefully be wondering about things that can be done to try to reduce stereotype threat. Here are some strategies:

Teach that abilities can be improved
Telling students that abilities and intelligence can be expanded can improve performance and eliminate gender differences in performance. This is pretty straightforward, and seems like something that could easily be incorporated into a class, graduate training, etc. I love this study on this topic, where students were encouraged to write letters to younger students who were struggling academically. Half the students were told to tell the younger students that intelligence is “like a muscle” and can improve with effort; black students who wrote letters talking about intelligence as improvable had better grades 9 weeks later.

Encourage values affirmation
Simply having students write short essays about their most important values (a process called “values affirmation”) can improve performance, and, most remarkably, the benefit of this short exercise can last for months or even years. In this study of college science students, having students do a values affirmation twice at the beginning of the semester reduced the gap in performance between male and female students. That something so simple can substantially improve performance is really encouraging to me – this also seems like something that would be pretty easy to implement in most classrooms.

Teach students about stereotype threat and imposter syndrome, and remind them that knowing about stereotype threat helps shield them from its effects
In one study, the performance of women on a math test was significantly improved by telling students “it’s important to keep in mind that if you are feeling anxious while taking this test, this anxiety could be the result of these negative stereotypes that are widely known in society and have nothing to do with your actual ability to do well on the test.” Again, this seems so simple to me, which is encouraging.

It also can help to teach students about imposter syndrome, and to remind them that it is very common (especially for women and people from underrepresented minorities) to think their success to date has been a fluke and that they will be found out. (One study reported in Whistling Vivaldi found that having diverse students interact about their day-to-day frustrations helped students from underrepresented groups, since it helped them realize that their struggles weren’t related to their identity as a member of a negatively stereotyped group.) It’s easy for students to think that their professors must have gotten A’s on every exam all along the way, which, of course, is not true! One woman physics professor I spoke with said she has started bringing in the first college physics exam she took; students find it very encouraging to learn that she got a C on that exam. And, as I’ve blogged about before, I find that graduate students are generally very interested to learn that a major failure as a grad student made me contemplate quitting grad school.

Reframe the test in a way that reduces stereotype threat
One approach to doing this is to say that the test is a problem-solving exercise rather than something diagnostic of their intelligence. However, that approach seems difficult to implement in the context of a college exam (though might work for something like qualifying exams). Something that is more likely to work in a college classroom is, if possible, to say that men and women (or that students from underrepresented groups) are known to perform equally well on the problems being given. Still, this seems like it would be difficult to implement in many classes (truthfully, at least).

Give feedback in a way that is mindful of stereotype threat
One thing that I found really interesting is the section in Whistling Vivaldi (see page 162) on how to give critical feedback on academic work to a student from an underrepresented group. It does not work to try to be neutral or to preface the feedback with a positive statement; the latter was particularly notable to me, as this is a strategy I often use and that I had thought was effective. (Steele says that this feedback didn’t work because students didn’t trust it, because it might be hiding racial bias.) Instead, studies have found that black students responded best to feedback that emphasized that the person doing the evaluation had high standards and believed the student could meet them. Steele talks about how this sort of approach helped him feel like he could fit in as a black graduate student in a predominantly white program and with a white advisor.

Increase the number of people in the stereotyped group to provide critical mass
This can be done in a few ways. Increasing overall diversity in a program (say, by admitting more students from underrepresented groups) is an obvious way of doing this, but is something that takes longer and can seem out of the hands of an individual faculty member. (This recent US Supreme Court decision also impacts how this can be done.) In the shorter term, one can pay attention to the composition of groups in the classroom to try to reduce the risk of stereotype threat. How to do so is tricky, though (and I am hoping to learn more about this in a Diversity Institute that I will attend here at Michigan in a few weeks). There is evidence that women undergraduates perform worse on math tests when they are paired with two men, as compared to when they are paired with other women. Another study of engineering students found that, in mixed gender groups, students take on gender-stereotyped roles (e.g., with the woman acting as the secretary for the group; pdf link to paper download). To me, these studies suggest that creating more homogenous groups might be good, at least in terms of improving learning and accuracy of testing. At the same time, an argument could be made that, since women and underrepresented minorities will end up facing stereotype threat repeatedly throughout their careers, there is value in learning how to deal with it. This is true, but I worry that this could be used to justify inaction, leading to a hostile climate and the loss of women and underrepresented minorities from STEM fields. An intermediate solution could be to have groups of four in which no one is the sole representative of a stereotyped group.

Provide role models and be mindful of cues
As I’ve said in a previous post, women and underrepresented minorities are often looking for cues that they belong.* This is part of why having diversity at the faculty level is so important, but, again, this is something that can’t be changed immediately. However, we can do other things to provide role models and to show that students from underrepresented groups are valued. For example, in teaching, there are often lots of possible examples that could be used to highlight a particular concept (e.g., competition). Given lots of options, why not choose the work of a woman or a scientist of color? Studies have shown that reminding women of strong women role models (such as by having them read essays) removes the gender gap in performance in math. Conversely, doing things that reinforce a negative stereotype (such as showing videos with gender-stereotyped content) can lower performance on an exam for the stereotyped group.

We also need to be aware of the subtle cues that are all around us (including in the recipients of our major awards). This includes the unintended messages we might send at our training sessions:


and departmental coffee hours:

(Photos on the wall in the conference room nearest my office, where we have a departmental coffee and doughnut hour on Fridays. Not the most diverse group, is it?)

If cues in a setting that point in an unsettling direction mount up, a sense of identity threat is likely to emerge. But if such cues are sparse in a setting and/or point in a benign direction, then a sense of identity threat should not arise or should subside.
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi, page 140

There is also evidence that it can help to emphasize aspects of an individual’s identity that should invoke positive stereotypes, while downplaying those that would invoke negative stereotypes. One example of this is the study on Asian American women math students that I covered in yesterday’s post. In my classroom, it seems like it should be pretty easy to emphasize that these students have all been admitted to a selective university, which would emphasize a positively stereotyped component of their identities.

One thing Steele emphasizes in Whistling Vivaldi is that you don’t need to counter every possible negative cue. Instead, you need to make students feel “identity safe” – that is, you need to make enough critical changes that indicate that diversity is appreciated. (Note: saying you are color-blind is not effective.)

Is reducing stereotype threat a magical solution to solving problems associated with student learning? Of course not. But, as Claude Steele puts it “for ability-stereotyped students, reducing identity threat is just as important as skill and knowledge instruction” (page 181, Whistling Vivaldi) in determining student success. Fortunately, some of the strategies for countering stereotype threat are pretty easy to implement. My hope with these posts is to raise awareness of the phenomenon, as well as information on ways to counter it.

Additional resources on countering stereotype threat
1. What can be done to reduce stereotype threat?
2. Shielding students from stereotype threat: a guide for teachers
3. Whistling Vivaldi

*I recently encountered an example of this “counting” phenomenon. On the last day of class this semester, one of the women in the class told me how many men had been there the first day and others nodded in agreement. They had been counting on the first day, and remembered that the whole semester, even though the number changed after that first day.

Stereotype threat: A summary of the problem

Note: This is the first of three posts about stereotype threat, which is the idea that negative stereotypes about a particular group can cause members of that group to underperform. Future posts will cover ways to try to reduce the effects of stereotype threat, and how stereotype threat might influence ally work. There will also be a post with a transcription of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s thoughts on the obstacles he’s had to overcome. These posts also link with an earlier post of mine on the implicit biases that we all have.

As scientists, we like to think that we are measuring things accurately, and tend to be disturbed at the idea that we might be systematically biased in our measurements. So, the idea that we might systematically be underestimating the abilities of a large portion of our students is something most of us would find disturbing. But this is what the data on stereotype threat suggests: because of negative stereotypes of certain groups (e.g., that women are not good at math as men, that blacks are not as intelligent as whites), members of those groups underperform in high-pressure situations such as exams.*

There is a lot of evidence at this point that supports stereotype threat; this page gives a list of over 300 studies on stereotype threatWhistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele is a really interesting book on the subject. But, to get you started, here are a few studies that provide evidence of stereotype threat:

When Asian-American women taking a math test were given a pre-test questionnaire that reminded them of their gender, they performed significantly worse than the control group, which was not reminded of their gender. Interestingly, there was also a treatment group that was reminded of their ethnic identity, which experiences a positive stereotype associated with math performance; students in this treatment group did significantly better than the control group on the exam. Thus, reminding students of a negatively stereotyped component of their identity reduced performance, but reminding them of a positively stereotyped component improved it.

– A study by the Educational Testing Service (reported on page 188 of Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi) tested whether women’s performance on the AP calculus exam was influenced by whether they had to indicate their gender before or after the exam. It was. Based on the size of the effect they measured, asking women to indicate their gender after exam, rather than before, would lead to 16.7% more women starting college with calculus credit. (It is important to note that this is an underestimate of the effect of stereotype threat, because the women who indicated their gender after the exam still surely experienced stereotype threat, just not to as great an extent as those who indicated their gender before the exam.) It’s kind of shocking that simply filling in a bubble to identify oneself as female can significantly lower performance on an exam.

– White and black students were given the Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices task. Students were given one of three instructions before the exam: that it was a measure of “observation and clear thinking” (which they refer to as the “standard threat” treatment), that it was an IQ test that measured intelligence and ability (which was the “high threat” treatment, as it would invoke stereotype threat for the black students), or that it was a set of puzzles (which was the “low threat” treatment). Black students did significantly worse than white students in the high and standard threat treatments, but did as well as white students in the low threat treatment.

– Finally, as evidence that all groups can experience stereotype threat, if white students were told that a golf task they were given was diagnostic of athletic ability, they did significantly worse on it than when they were told it was diagnostic of athletic intelligence. (pdf link)

(also see footnote below for an uncontrolled but very interesting exploration of stereotype threat)

And here’s perhaps the most disturbing aspect of stereotype threat: stereotype threat most strongly affects strong, motivated students.

No special susceptibility is required to experience this pressure. Research has found but one prerequisite: the person must care about the performance in question. That’s what makes the prospect of confirming the negative stereotype upsetting enough to interfere with that performance.

Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi, pages 98

What mechanism underlies stereotype threat? Constantly thinking about whether your performance on a difficult task is potentially letting down your entire group takes up mental bandwidth that then can’t be used for the task at hand. The person experiencing stereotype threat is always multitasking, and multitasking reduces performance. Stereotype threat leads to physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. (There’s an interesting section in Whistling Vivaldi exploring whether this can help explain why minority groups have poorer health than would be predicted otherwise, due to a phenomenon known as John Henryism.)

Stereotype threat can mean that the person is not just taking an exam (or participating in an interview or running a race or whatever the task at hand is) – they are also trying to refute a stereotype. This leads to extra pressure not to fail – you are representing your whole stereotyped group, afterall! This is something that comes up regularly in stories about women in STEM and minorities in academia. For example, in this piece written by a woman leaving chemisty, she discusses the pressure she faced not to leave academia, as that would be taken as a failure of women in science, reducing diversity. And the picture that stood out to me the most when I looked through the I, Too, Am Harvard tumblr was this one:


Source: I, Too, Am Harvard

Clearly that woman has faced the pressure of being the only black student in her class, and being viewed as a representative of an entire race. It is easy to imagine how, in such a situation, one might feel suffocating pressure to do well.

Disproving a stereotype is a Sisyphean task; something you have to do over and over again as long as you are in the domain where the stereotype applies.

Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi, page 111

Hopefully this post has convinced you that stereotype threat is real and a concern. Tomorrow’s post will cover things that can be done to try to reduce stereotype threat.

*UPDATE: See this post for a great quote from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on the stereotypes he’s faced.

There is a really interesting Frontline documentary entitled “A Class Divided” that features a teacher, Jane Elliot. The day after Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated, she did an experiment with her class that is a powerful demonstration of the potential impacts of stereotype threat. As she explains in the documentary, she felt that she needed to do something to make her (all-white) students realize how dehumanizing and pernicious stereotypes can be. To demonstrate that, she told her class that blue-eyed people were smarter and better than brown-eyed people, and made the brown-eyed students wear felt collars. It’s amazing to see in the video how quickly the students internalize this. Even more amazing is to see how quickly they internalize the exact opposite message when she reverses it on the second day, telling them that, actually, brown-eyed people are smarter and better and making the blue-eyed students wear the collars. In the documentary, she notes that there was a difference in the performance of students on tests between the days, with brown-eyed students doing worse the first day and better the second day (and vice-versa for the blue-eyed kids) (this segment starts a bit before 3 minutes in the second segment). The video is really remarkable and eye-opening. (Note: the film is not from the days immediately after Martin Luther King, Jr. died. She repeated the experiment in future years, and it was filmed in one of those years.)