Can Stereotyping Girls Harm Boys Too?

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When Larry Summers, then the president of Harvard, made his infamous remark in 2005 about “intrinsic aptitude” in explaining part of the gap between men and women’s performance in math and science, he was accused of making it harder for women and girls to succeed in those fields. He wasn’t blamed for hobbling the performance of men and boys—but maybe he should have been.

According to new research, both males and females do worse on a spatial reasoning task when they’re told that intrinsic aptitude accounts for the gender gap in the test’s results—even though the gap favors men.

In the study, published in the February issue of the journal Learning and Individual Differences, psychologist Angelica Moè told a group of 201 high school students that they would be taking a test that measured how well they could mentally manipulate imagined objects. They were also told that males perform better than females on this exercise, known as the Mental Rotation Test. Such pre-test comments are a standard way of inducing what psychologists call “stereotype threat.”

Research shows that when women or minorities are reminded before being evaluated that the group to which they belong commonly scores poorly, they themselves do worse than if they had received no such reminder. Anxiety about confirming the negative stereotype hampers their performance.

But Moè went a step further. She divided the students into four groups and offered each one a particular explanation for women’s comparative disadvantage. One group was told that the gap resulted from genetic differences between men and women. A second group was told that time limits were the problem: women could do as well as men on the test, but they were more affected by restrictions on the amount of time they could take to work on it. A third group was told that other people’s stereotypes were to blame, making women feel less able than they are. And a fourth group, acting as a control, was simply told again that men perform better on the task than women. Then all the groups took the test.

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The results: When women were given an external reason for females’ poor performance—time limits or others’ stereotypes—they did better on the test. When they were given an internal reason—their own deficient genes—they did worse. But the study’s really striking finding was that men also did worse when told that genes were the cause of the gender gap.

It turns out that genetic explanations for performance aren’t good for anybody: women are convinced that their inferior genes won’t allow them to compete, and men worry that they won’t live up to the claims made for their supposedly superior Y chromosome. “It does not matter if the genetic explanation is really true or to what extent it is true,” Moè writes. “What makes the difference is the belief that failures or difficulties are dependent on genetic reasons.”

When genetic explanations are “really true,” we should respect them as solid scientific evidence. But loose talk about the genetic basis of ability—whether in speeches by college presidents or in hype-filled newspaper headlines—may well harm the performance of everyone, male and female alike.

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Parents and educators can push back against such talk by emphasizing at every opportunity the malleable nature of intelligence—pointing out, for example, that performance on tasks like the Mental Rotation Test can be improved with training and practice. And test-takers can “prime” their own belief in flexible intelligence by saying to themselves, “I can do well if I try really hard,” or “With practice I will get better at this.” These aren’t cheesy self-affirmations, but truthful statements that will put us in the frame of mind to do our best.

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