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The Stereotype Threat to Workplace Diversity: Dr. Claude Steele Mesmerizes Audience

For acclaimed social psychologist Dr. Claude Steele, the numbers just didn’t make sense. Why, he wondered, was the national college dropout rate for Black students 20 to 25 percent higher than that for whites even when those students were just as well-prepared for college, had no socioeconomic disadvantages and managed to get excellent SAT scores? And among those Black students who did finish college, why was their grade-point average consistently lower than white students?

Drawing from his new book, “Whistling Vivaldi,” Steele offered corporate leaders and diversity executives attending a DiversityInc event an insider’s look at his groundbreaking research on stereotypes and identity and the role they play in academic achievement and underachievement among Blacks and women. 

“You must read this book,” Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc, told the audience. “You will end up buying boxes of it for your corporation. Make sure your white men get a copy of it. Why do you think the educational resources aren’t there in the inner-city schools? Society believes those children are not capable of learning. Now we are aware of this. Think about mentoring. Think about employee-resource groups and the role [this information] can play in getting people to perform and eliminating bias.”

According to Steele, one of the major barriers holding back the achievement of Blacks, women and other underrepresented groups is a phenomenon he calls “stereotype threat,” the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype. Call it subconscious self-handicapping.

In his insightful and engaging lecture, Steele, who at the time of the event was the provost at Columbia University, said that overcoming stereotype threats is key to removing barriers to achievement that currently hinder Blacks, women and other underrepresented groups in school and the workplace. Steele is now the dean at Stanford University School of Education.

“Over the years, studying this problem of underperformance has morphed into solving the diversity problem,” said Steele, who taught at Stanford University as a professor in social psychology before joining Columbia last year. “It’s one thing to numerically integrate a setting. It’s another thing to make that place a place where everyone feels comfortable and can flourish.”

Steele’s theory starts with the concept of social identity, which he defined as group membership in categories such as age, gender, religion and ethnicity. Blacks constantly face the threat of being considered racially inferior, a stereotype that has long been entrenched in American society. As such, Black students quickly learn that their acceptance will be difficult to win.

Steele said anxiety about being judged stereotypically as a woman, Black, even a white male—particularly when that stereotype is negative—can seriously hinder performance on important tests like the SAT. For example, Steele noted that when Black students are told that they are taking a test to measure their intelligence, it can bring to mind rather forcefully ugly, untrue stereotypes about Black intelligence as it compares to whites.

Systemic Underperformance

Steele became interested in the topic shortly after he joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1987 and was tapped to join a committee to study the university’s student recruitment and retention. The data he saw was baffling: high dropout rates for Black students and lower grades across the board when compared with whites, regardless of how high their SAT scores were or whether they came from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds.

He said Black students earning lower grades than white students wouldn’t have surprised him in and of itself. “The differences in educational opportunities tied to race lead one to expect that kind of difference,” he said. But what he saw was far more systemic.

“What I saw was this slide at every level of SAT scores and regardless of preparation for college work,” he said. “Someone coming in with a 1,500 SAT score was getting lower grades than other students, and I wondered what could be causing that. Why would students that good underperform? Why were they underperforming in an environment like Michigan, which had a set of programs in place to welcome them and support available to them? That was the puzzle that got us started.”

Over the past 20 years, Steele has conducted numerous studies to test his theory of stereotype threat. In one study, he asked two groups of Black and white college students to take a 30-minute test made up of questions from the verbal section of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The test was designed to be difficult and the results were shocking.

When one group was told the test would measure their intellectual ability, Black students underperformed dramatically. But when another group was told the test could not measure intellectual ability, Blacks and whites performed at virtually the same level.

“When you get ride of the stereotype threat and tell the students this is not a test of cognitive ability, it’s just a puzzle, have fun—that small instruction makes the stereotype irrelevant,” Steele said. “When you create that situation, their performance goes up to match that of white students.”

Feeling Threatened

The same effect also holds true when women take a math test that supposedly measures cognitive differences between the genders, or even when white males are exposed to stereotypes about the academic superiority of, say, Asians, Steele said.

“When you feel under threat, you know that based on an identity you have, something bad could happen. You don’t know whether in fact it will happen. You don’t know precisely what could happen or when or where it could happen,” he said. “It’s like having a snake loose in the house. It’s a terrible feeling. When you are in this situation, most of your cognitive resources are devoted to vigilance.”

Steele said this anxiety often manifests itself in psychological and physiological ways, including distraction, increased body temperature and increased heart rate, all of which diminish performance levels.

“If you care about what you are doing, the prospect of being judged is upsetting and distressing and disturbing,” he said. “In a situation like this, it takes cognitive resources away from a relaxed engagement with the task at hand and that undermines your performance.”

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12 Comments

  • THis is fascinating. It never fails to amaze me how negative energy can impact us humans.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve found that people with leaning differences perform much higher when the idea of being judged is taken out of the equation and some encouragement up front is given. For example, you’ve scored well on this type of test before,

  • Anonymous

    As a Black woman who was consistently told to figure things out for myself, while my obviously less capable white classmate was coddled and given support and tutoring, it is taking me plenty of positive self talk, to get through grad school on my own. My classmate’s GPA is higher than mine, primarily because I taught myself the work. It takes longer to figure out something on your own, than when you get help. She is better prepared than I at all times. My work is single authored. Everything is my own effort. I have few people to thank for my success. It is very obvious that racial prejudice is at work. As a white woman she’s got it made…

  • Anonymous

    Is the rest of his presentation archived somewhere like these 3 short segments?

  • Anonymous

    Very interested research work, but I would be interested to see data to back up his research study. Is there a ebook download of his book?

  • Why, he wondered, was the national college dropout rate for Black students 20 to 25 percent higher than that for whites even when those students were just as well-prepared for college, had no socioeconomic disadvantages and managed to get excellent SAT scores?

    My old Dad, skidding logs in the local hardwood forests behind a part-Percheron horse named Diamond, 45 years ago, could probably offer some insight. Sometimes, late into a hot, muggy morning, old Diamond would stand knee deep in cool, rushing creek water for five minutes or more with sweat literally dripping off his belly, but he wouldn’t drink. Just wasn’t thirsty, yet. Didn’t need water. Would drink water later, maybe, but didn’t need any right now.

  • Anonymous

    Very interesting article. Will definately pick up the book.

    I am saddened by the third post above. I am attending grad school and am black and have had no issues with favoritism or discrimination. I think that maybe your challenge in getting assistance can be tied more to your negative attitude.

  • Anonymous

    I appreciate Claude Steele’s comments and findings. As a Black Gay Man who is Harvard educated and having worked in several Foruture 100 companies, I can relate.

    And, what I would like to learn more about would be how to build self-confidence and power when one’s group status is “targeted.” Also, I would like some tips on how to be a more effective ally when I am a member of a more privileged group – i.e., man in relationship to female colleagues.

  • Anonymous

    I saw this with my own eyes. Working in the school district with a special needs student who was academically gifted, I was able to note the withering of the few black students in the program as they listened to stereotypical applications, biased comments, and racist remarks (some deliberate but many unthinkingly and unknowingly) uttered in the classroom.

    I also saw the self-doubt of white students when they began to measure themselves against the few Asian students in the class, even overhearing one white student mutter frustrated, “Why are they so much better in math?”. So even a gifted white student from a upper-middle class background began to have self-doubt when faced with what he assumed was superior performance and intelligence (based on his stereotypic beliefs about the academic capabilities of fellow students based on their race).

    As a bright student myself when integrated with white students in middle-school and faced with competing with other students probably no brighter than myself and certainly no brighter than my best girlfriend (High School of Science graduate) and finding not only how unprepared I had been by my urban school but also how they were treated by the other teachers, I simply gave up. Their parents fought with teachers to get higher grades for their children and teachers caved. If their children got a 95 instead of a 98 on a test, the teacher was blamed for their inability to bring out the best in that student and those 3 points were granted. IIl-prepared with a second-rate education but no less intelligent, no one was coming to school to fight for me and my 85 on the same test.

    At work, I have always exceeded goals (once having mine and only mine raised because, as it was explained, I couldn’t keep receiving “superior” ratings – uh?) and expectations (always to my white employer’s utter shock), only to hit the glass ceiling time and again. In order to earn the income I felt I deserved (and earned), I found myself having to change jobs every five years to get myself a higher salary. This short-changed me in the long run as I could never stay with one corporation to earn a decent pension. I cannot calculate the lesser income I have earned over my work-life because of this. Only recently I was passed over for a promotion for someone white with years less seniority and who rated number 12 while I was rated number 3 on a work-related test for the position. How could that happen? I am too tired to fight (and now too old to quit to get for myself my well-deserved promotion). Now my only desire is to be able to retire and to never again have my self-worth and monetary worth arbitrarily decided by someone who cannot see me for the forest.

    Enough about me. If anyone has any doubts about his findings – take a look at sports where Blacks dominate, particular basketball. There is no reason whatsoever why white males should not be just as good or competitive in this sport, but I would bet my last dollar that many of them believe that they cannot compete in this sport and fulfill a self-defeating prophecy. (And have read comments to this effect over the years – why should they bother since the Black guys are going to beat them anyway.) Any race can do less well than they should when they come to believe that they are inherently inferior no matter what the endeavor.

    Oh, and like a previous poster who received no help (while attending college while a white student was encouraged and coddled) – I know I’ve earned everything I’ve worked for and no one can ever tell me that if I had the same abilities and intelligence but were a white male that things would have been so much more different.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like moonshine to me. Where are Dr. Steele’s results replicated? And do you really believe “stereotype threat” is so terrifying and benumbing to blacks’ mental effort that their test performance collapses whenever the dreaded letters, “IQ” are mentioned? How does this relate to the many studies showing blacks have higher self-esteem than other groups? Talk about sensitive egos! According Dr. Steele, I suppose, the black – white IQ gap can be eliminated by somehow tricking blacks into thinking the test they’re taking is not an IQ test. Sorry guys. Until you come up with something a lot more convincing and rigorous, I’ll stick with THE BELL CURVE, Arthur Jensen, William Shockley, and Phillipe Rushton. — Gerald Martin

  • Anonymous

    Prof. Claude Steele has changed my life forever. This may sound melodramatic to some! Yesterday, June 03, I had the privilege of attending his presentation Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us at Stanford University sponsored by Stanford Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. It was when Director, Prof. Hazel Rose Markus moving introduction of Dr. Steele that I realized how highly regarded he is at Stanford University! It was also a day when the Center had been singled out, selected, and awarded an honor of Excellence for its diversity by the President of Stanford University. I attended the Lecture/Reading out of sheer interest, a member of the public, neither knowing who Dr. Steele was/is, (I am humbled in my apology), nor that this esteemed man was going to change my life. I am like many others, a living example of his work on “stereotype threat” – I feel I am his laboratory subject, his experiment that lends to his empirical data, and I whistle Vivaldi. I’m a bright mature woman of Indian origin, double Master’s, articulate, respected and loved by all who know me. BUT, and here’s my caveat – I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for 20 years. My children are grown, productive young adults who are role models in their respective fields. I now want to re-enter the work force, get paid for a job I’ve been doing for decades! It’s been a year of rejection, frustration leading my analytical mind to believe that I am no longer valid in this world – that the decades I’ve spent volunteering in my community/schools and the effort I put into attaining my degree’s are of no worth …until yesterday. Thank you Dr. Steele. Now, I look at this past year as being in an experiment in Dr. Steele’s laboratory. I’ve applied for scores of jobs – ranging from a retail associate (which essentially is putting clothes in a hanger onto a rack) to teaching positions – college, private schools – I taught college freshman through senior level for 6 years prior to ‘working’ as a full-time mom. To begin with I received a letter from Bloomingdales, in response to the retail sales job, expressing regret that I was ‘not qualified’ for the job. Wow…I don’t have a PhD unfortunately I thought! But this was only the beginning. As the year progressed, I received some more responses – not qualified for a Teller job (I have two Master’s in Economics) etc. However, some phone interviews progressed into personal interviews for jobs that I was prepared to accept was I hired – jobs that needed a high school diploma as a basic qualification but ended with “not qualified” after the interview! But this narrative is no longer the thrust of my story. It’s post-Steele era – a light bulb turned on in my head last evening. You see, after every phone interview, I chided myself for not being more eloquent, more expressive about specific experience/questions being asked – those that I would ordinarily have nailed had it been someone I knew on the other side of the phone. After each interview, I was inexplicably shocked at my performance. I had reached a point in my job search, which BTW included a letter to President Obama (no stone unturned) into believing that perhaps I don’t have IT anymore and I should not look to re-enter for a ‘pay-check.’ – This was my perception – I am a victim of my age, ethnicity, gender, prior priorities, in a ruthless economy. Last evening, Dr. Steele spoke about the perception of “stereotype threat’ and the cognitive resources being drained away from a relaxed engagement…THIS was the huge revelation for me for he is exactly, exactly right. At each phone interview, I am choosing my words, I am watching my pronunciation – sound more American, less British and ‘least’ foreign, and I’m already processing ‘the mind set’ of my interviewer, I’m so focused on the mental noise that I’m exhausting my mental faculties in merely hiding my “social identity”– the result is an utter disaster of everything spoken by me. Nothing I say represents my intellect nor does it represent my personality. I literally give the power to another person to pull the rug from under me while I divert my best cognitive resources into figuring out if there is a ‘snake in the house’ – ha-ha, great analogy Dr. Steele. For fear of the length of this expose, I won’t write about the physical interview’s I’ve had though they are alarmingly illuminating in the context of the validity of Dr. Steel’s work. The punch line – Dr. Steele, gave me an invaluable tool last evening – I’m going to use it for my next interview on Monday, 07…I feel so confident that I will not let ‘stereotype threats’ destroy my cognitive recourses. Though in reality – Can I do it? Will I? I don’t know yet, but what I do know is that I am telling myself that it’s no longer about my trying to land a job…it’s now a life experiment that will add to Dr. Steele’s data. I have a new perspective, a new mind set/perception, a new “narrative” – I am no longer the victim! I look at each interview as an experiment in Dr. Steele’s lab and not as a job interview. Results: TBD.
    PS. Gerald Martin, get real, I’m not black or white – just diverse… and do yourself a favor – stop ‘tricking’ yourself.

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