2.9 Aspects of unconscious bias: stereotype threat

We have focused so far on the impact that our unconscious biases can have on our behaviour towards other people but they can also impact on perceptions of self, in relation to stereotypes that we think apply to ourselves.

Stereotype threat describes the condition where we behave or feel that we might behave, in a way that confirms a negative stereotype about a group that we belong to. Our knowledge of the stereotype unconsciously influences our behaviour and leads to negative performance.

Stereotype threat is one of the more extensively studied phenomena in psychology and has been shown to influence, for different groups, a diverse range of activities, including: intelligence tests, memory tests, driving, sports and childcare skills.

Stereotype threat works because:

  • I am aware that a stereotype exists that ‘x’ people are not good at ‘y’ activity.
  • I know that I belong to ‘x’ group.
  • When I attempt to do ‘y’, the knowledge of the stereotype affects my performance, motivation and aspiration.

Pennington et al (2016) undertook a systematic literature review of stereotype threat and found that there wasn’t one single mechanism responsible for the negative impact on performance. However, the implicit internalisation of a negative stereotype led to increased anxiety, negative thinking and/or mind-wandering, resulting in reduced cognitive capacity and therefore poorer performance.

More information on stereotype threat

The term ‘stereotype threat’ was first used by Steele and Aronson in 1995 who showed in several experiments that black students performed more poorly on standardised tests than white students when their race was emphasised. When race was not emphasised the black students performed better and equivalently with white students. The study showed that academic performance can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behaviour might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes.

Stereotype threat can lead to:

  • Poorer performance in assessments as the Steele and Aronson study showed
  • Poorer performance in other tasks (in tests where women were reminded of the stereotype that women drive less well than men they drove less well than men – and less well than they normally drove) In this way stereotype threat can trouble peoples’ relationships with aspects of their identity.
  • Acceptance of poor performance/distancing from the task. Because people think they won’t be any good at something they won’t express interest in it. This means they won’t be surprised when their performance is poor or try to improve.
  • Redirection of aspirations and career paths. Davies, Spencer, Quinn and Gerhardstein (2002) showed that exposing women to TV advertisements endorsing stereotypes of women decreased the interest they expressed in pursuing leadership roles or careers involving quantitative skills. Thus stereotypes can cause individuals enough discomfort to drop out of the field and redefine their professional identities.

Activity 8

How might stereotype threat relate to gender equality or gender stereotypes? How could it affect pupils in a school or classroom environment?


While the most comprehensive recent studies show no gender differences in maths ability or difference in interest in science at a young age, stereotype threat is important because of its strong effect on pupil’s own perceptions, beliefs, performance and selection of activities and environments.

Multiple studies show that parents' and teachers' stereotypes about gender and mathematics predict children's perceptions of their own abilities, regardless of the actual ability of the children. The studies show that these stereotypes and their internalisation by pupils, influence both their performance and course choices.

As early as primary school, girls repeatedly report lower mathematics competence compared to boys, despite no actual difference in ability. Effects of stereotype threat on performance have been demonstrated in children as early as nursery/pre-school.

While we are focused on women and STEM, stereotype threat has the same, opposite effect on male pupil self-perception and attitudes towards studying, which might contribute to some boys’ lower academic performance.

You can take a simple online test to examine unconscious bias in relation to gender and science here https://implicit.harvard.edu/ implicit/ takeatest.html [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Record in your learning log any reflections about the results of the test. You might find it helpful to discuss the results with your colleagues.

2.8 Aspects of unconscious bias: confirmation bias

2.10 What can we do about it?