Stereotype Threat

Preface

One reason I love Dev Bootcamp is it's holistic education of the whole individual. They've taken on the task of educating people about the world they will need to be able to work in. They don't produce programmers that are only suited to programming in a vacuum, but developers capable of interacting with other developers and dealing wih the cultural climate of the day. They're comitted to teaching skills beyond the technical - they teach social awareness skills - and in so doing, they treat the student as an inlelligent, aware person, not a tool suited to performing a specific kind of task. They're educating change agents here.

It took me a few weeks to piece this together. I've been busy learning HTML, CSS, basic Ruby, learning to pair program, and building this website, so it didn't occur to me until just now as I sat down to reflect on a cultural issue, that I'm learning so much more than I ever expected to. I thought I would walk out of DBC (sometime this Fall, if all goes according to plan) and be more than qualified for a challenging, rewarding job as a junior web developer. I have a feeling that's the least of what I'll leave DBC with.

I had all but given up on 'making a difference' or 'doing work that matters'. My early career roles left a lot to be desired in those regards. I have but one life to live, and if I'm to spend 40+ hours of my week in support of something, I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that 'something' is worth it. How's that for an education that empowers.

Reflection

In my opinion, stereotype threat is the phenomenon wherein awareness of a negative stereotype about oneself can cause anxiety and/or a tendency to conform to that stereotype. From Wikipedia:

Stereotype threat is a situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group ... Situational factors that increase stereotype threat can include the difficulty of the task, the belief that the task measures their abilities, and the relevance of the stereotype to the task ... Repeated experiences of stereotype threat can lead to a vicious circle of diminished confidence, poor performance, and loss of interest in the relevant area of achievement ...
Proponents of stereotype threat have been criticized for exaggerating its importance as an explanation of real-world performance gaps and misrepresenting evidence as more conclusive than it is. One review has voiced concerns that the effect has been over-estimated and that the field suffers from publication bias."

(For the following discussion, I'll assume that stereotype threat is a valid concept.)

To my way of thinking, it boils down to whether one feels as though they belong, if they feel the community will support them, and if they feel comfortable being themselves. When all of these things are there: sense of belonging, community/peer validation, nonthreatening environment - a student is well set to succeed. In the absence of even one of these factors, a student will not perform to the best of their abilities.

Literature Review

This article, from the Atlantic, describes the effects beautifully: in situations where we acknowledge a stereotype, where we know we may be judged, we feel mistrustful and apprehensive. We are 'on guard' against such judgement. But this extra vigilance is tiring, and, over time, may lead to a realignment of self-regard so that our sense of self no longer depends on the outcome of those external judgements. This shift has the side effect of a loss of interest and/or motivation.

How do you mitigate stereotype threat? Put simply, it's all about trust. Reading the article, linked above (here it is again), I learned that, for students under stereotype threat, it's imperative to explicitly signal that:

  1. Any judgement reflects standards rather than race.
  2. You do not view them stereotypically / you believe in their ability to buck the stereotype.

Again, from Mr. Steele @ the Atlantic:

"Even though the stereotypes held by the larger society may be difficult to change, it is possible to create niches in which negative stereotypes are not felt to apply. In specific classrooms, within specific programs, even in the climate of entire schools, it is possible to weaken a group's sense of being threatened by negative stereotypes, to allow its members a trust that would otherwise be difficult to sustain."

Conclusion

The difference between experiencing the negative impacts of stereotype threat, and in mitigating them completely is an awareness of negative stereotypes and a willingness to engage with the two steps listed above. The battleground for this particular social issue is individual communities. I know that I am committed to showing up for my communities. Can you say the same?