Fighting the Good Fight

Last week, I reflected on Stereotype Threat and the DevBootcamp educational experience. This week, I'll take it a step further and discuss how to fight stereotype threat and other nasties like the imposter syndrome.

A little bit about me - I pursued an engineering degree from a well respected educational institution. I had a number of classes where I was the only female in the room. None of my engineering classes even approached a 50/50 M-to-F ratio. I think I had one female engineering professor during my entire collegiate experience. That being said, I'm at a loss as to how to discuss negative stereotypes of women in technology, because I've never experienced them in any significant way in an academic environment. I have noticed it in other situations, just not in the strongly liberal world of higher education.

What I struggle with most, then, is not stereotype threat, it's the Imposter Syndrome. My biggest fear, to date, is that after deciding to be a developer, I won't be good at it. I have a critical inner voice saying "who do you think you are, to think you're [good, smart, disciplined, etc.] enough to succeed at this". And so this conversation is just as relevant for me as it is for those under the influence of stereotype threat.

How to Combat Stereotype Threat

Some lovely sciency people did some studies on this, and below is my take on what they came up with. They were fabulous about citing studies. I will not be. If you're interested, check out the original article here. This is how you address stereotype threat:

  • Create a detailed self-concept map (see mine below).
  • When providing feedback, include assurance that the student is capable of meeting standards.
  • Seek role models and mentors.
  • Provide an (ideally external and temporary) explanation for anxiety that neither implicates the self nor validates the stereotype OR explain that the anxiety will improve performance.
  • Awareness of what's going on is often enough.

Self-Concept Map

Why make a self-concept map? How about becuase "women encouraged to think of themselves in terms of their valued and unique characteristics were less likely to experience stereotype threat in mathematics," or becuase individuals encouraged "to consider themselves as complex and multi-faceted [reduces] vulnerability to stereotype threat."

What do I value? It feels strange to put this on the internet - at the same time empowering and incredibly self-indulgent. I'm doing this for two reasons, to provide an example, and to define my values in a place that is easy to reference, in case I need a reminder.

For this project, I was given a (huge) list of values and asked wich ones apply when I am happiest or most satisfied with my life. I ended up grouping the values into categories, and my result is a good representation of where my interests lie. It's not the prettiest thing. Maybe one day I'll make a large and beautiful poster of "Self", but today is not that day. Here's what my values are, in approximate order of importance:

IndependenceIntrospection, inner peace, stability, self-sufficiency, privacy, honesty, integrity, reputation, ambition, personal development, achievement, cleverness
ChangeMovement, adaptability, decisiveness, coolness under fire
OptimismEnthusiasm, excitement, vibrancy, inspiration, creativity, love, cooperation, playfulness
EngagementMeaningful work, work I believe in, responsibility, commitment, competence, excellence
ConnectionMentorship, someone that believes in me, meaningful relationships, community, support network
AestheticsPleasing environment, organization, efficiency, cleanliness, nice smells
PhysicalityPhysical challenge, physical contact with other humans
SpiritualityOneness, belief in the good of humanity, faith, nature
VulnerabilityOpenness, authenticity, song, dance, creative expression

I would be really interested to see, if any of my cohort share one of these, what the similarities and differences are.


Here's what I learned about feedback:

"Constructive feedback appears most effective when it communicates high standards for performance but also assurances that the student is capable of meeting those high standards." Also - "High standards and assurances of capability appear to signal that students will not be judged stereotypically and that their abilities and “belonging” are assumed rather than questioned."

I plan to keep this in mind when giving feedback to others.

Role Models

"Their evidence suggests that providing even a single role model that challenges stereotypic assumptions can eliminate performance decrements under stereotype threat." Even a single role model. Maybe one day I can be that person for someone else. For now, I really need to find some mentors of my own. Perhaps some of these inspiring women.

Alternate Explanations

"Several studies have shown that stereotype threat can be diminished by providing individuals with explanations regarding why anxiety and distraction are occurring that do not implicate the self or validate the stereotype."

"Encouraging students to attribute struggle to an external, temporary cause eliminated typical gender differences in math performance."

"Telling individuals under stereotype threat that their performance will not be hindered and might even be improved by the anxious feelings they might be experiencing eliminated the performance decrements associated with stereotype threat."


Finally, some research has examined the effects of blatantly identifying and disarming the anxiety that arises from stereotype threat. For example, "it's important to keep in mind that if you are feeling anxious while taking this test, this anxiety could be the result of these negative stereotypes that are widely known in society and have nothing to do with your actual ability to do well on the test.” And that fixes the problem, how cool is that?!

Take Aways

If you internalize anything from reading this page, let it be that people have the power to effect real change in the lives of others. All you need is awareness, knowledge, and the desire to do so.