The Negative Consequences Of Positive Stereotypes: Positive Gender Stereotypes Elicit Negative Stereotype Beliefs But Not Stereotype Threat For Women In Stem.

Elizabeth Scharnetzki, University of Vermont


Gender disparities are significantly pronounced within fields that have been perceived as prohibitive for women, such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); for example, women make up only 29% of the entire STEM workforce (e.g., NSF, Science and Engineering Indicators, 2016). Efforts to promote inclusivity in STEM have historically focused on “debunking” negative stereotypes by highlighting socially desirable attributes of marginalized groups (i.e., positive stereotypes). Positive stereotypes are assumed to be benign because they ascribe favorable attributes to a disadvantaged group; however, research suggests that positive stereotypes can be associated with negative consequences, including feelings of depersonalization and attributions of prejudice and negative stereotyping (Siy and Cheryan, 2016). The impact of positive gender stereotypes on women in STEM has not yet been investigated; thus, the current research examined whether positive gender stereotypes would elicit negative psychological and behavioral consequences for women in STEM. Specifically, I examined whether being the target of positive gender stereotypes contributed to STEM women’s feelings of depersonalization, heightened perceptions of prejudice and negative stereotype beliefs, and a diminished anticipated sense of belonging, all of which are associated with women’s persistence in STEM. Additionally, I examined whether positive gender stereotypes would impair STEM women’s performance on a domain-relevant test (i.e., stereotype threat) as a result of these negative psychological outcomes.

Female STEM majors were asked to imagine that they were applying for a competitive STEM internship program. Participants were randomly assigned to read a recruitment statement from a hypothetical program that evoked either positive gender stereotypes (positive stereotype condition), negative gender stereotypes (negative stereotype condition), or no stereotypes (control condition). Results demonstrated that positive gender stereotypes did not affect STEM women’s performance, feelings of depersonalization, or anticipated sense of belonging; however, a significant effect of stereotype condition on participants’ perceptions of prejudice was found. Importantly, participants in both the positive stereotype and negative stereotype condition also had more negative stereotype beliefs than participants in the control condition; these negative stereotype beliefs were significantly correlated with diminished anticipated sense of belonging and cognitive interference on the domain-relevant test. These findings represent an important first step to identifying the barriers that are preventing women from being recruited and retained in STEM positions.