The study, published in September in the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, addressed one basic question: Do stereotypes about gender in STEM exist, and if so, how do they vary between black and white women both explicitly and implicitly?
First, after surveying a range of university students, O’Brien and her team found that the difference in the number of men and women in STEM majors was larger among white students than among black ones. Black women reported more interest in STEM fields than white women, O’Brien said, which the researchers had hypothesized before starting the analysis because of what earlier surveys had found.
But when O’Brien and her colleagues conducted their own surveys, the results surprised them. University students were asked a series of explicit, straightforward questions about whether they thought particular fields were "masculine," and white and black women had similar answers. But when they were asked to take an implicit association test, designed to tap into subjects’ unconscious stereotypes, the outcomes were different; as a whole, white women were much more likely to associate STEM professions with men than were black women. This means that black women were less likely to internalize the stereotype that STEM fields were predominantly male. And surveys of men revealed the same trend: Black males were less likely than their white counterparts to assume that STEM fields were more masculine.
Previous research in this field helps explain how internalized stereotypes can affect women’s identity and performance. Women in fields they believe to be predominantly masculine are subject to stereotype threat, a dilemma in which females feel that they will be confirming negative assumptions about their gender if they don’t perform as well as their male colleagues on tests. The depressing state of affairs is that, when women feel that they have to represent their entire gender or feel alone in their fields, they actually do score lower on tests. One study found that when women were told their performance represented all females in that field, they faltered on more difficult math tests, but when the stereotype threat was lowered, they did just fine. These situations can have real effects on women in STEM fields, who may get discouraged from pursuing them further." Women don’t like math as much if they have strong stereotypes [about the field]," O'Brien said.
O’Brien’s results imply that black and white women are exposed to the same stereotypes because they answered the same on the explicit test." But the results kind of suggest that the difference may be in how they internalize them," O’Brien said.
So why don’t black women internalize the stereotypes as much? Stephanie Rowley, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, thinks it starts early, stemming from how black parents treat their daughters versus their sons."Within black families we’re finding that parents tend to be very concerned about black boys,"Rowley said. One of Rowley’s own studies found that black parents expected their sons to perform worse in school than their daughters, even when boys’ grades were actually higher. "Parents don’t want to push black boys as hard," she said, "not because they think they can’t handle it, but they fear the effects of failure. They don’t want to set [boys] up for failure, and they fear putting their sons in these environments where they may not be supported or welcomed." This comes from parents’ desire to protect their sons, she said.
But black parents send their daughters the opposite message. "What’s happening with black girls is that their parents are seeing them as strong and efficacious and capable, so [they’re] pushing them into whatever it is they want to do and find interesting," Rowley said. Peers and teachers see black girls as smart and less likely to get in trouble in comparison to black boys. Giving black girls the confidence to pursue any field at an early age may make them more immune to the stereotypes they’re exposed to in adolescence and beyond.