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

Dr. Claude Steele, a recognized leader in the field of social psychology, tells how negative stereotypes hinder workplace diversity, perpetuate the achievement gap between Blacks/whites and limit talent potential.


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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