How Do Stereotype Threats Affect Retention?

Fear and anxiety are powerful motivators. When we fear that our actions will confirm negative stereotypes about our “group,” or about ourselves as members of a group, then this “stereotype threat” negatively affects our behavior. According to Aronson and Steele, stereotype threat harms both performance and motivation by reducing our feelings of competence, belonging, and trust in our colleagues.

Stereotype threat hinders performance. For example, experiments show that White male engineering students get lower-than-usual test grades when told in advance that Asians typically score higher than any other group on math tests. Likewise, other experiments have shown that African Americans underachieve on academic tests when threatened by racial stereotypes about intelligence. Elderly people have more trouble with memory tests when reminded of their age. Public use of computer software designed for the opposite sex triggers feelings of stress due to stereotype threat. And, women underperform on math tests when gender is called to their attention.

Stereotype threat also influences choices and aspirations. For example, experiments show that women avoid leadership roles in a project after viewing commercials showing female stereotyped behaviors (such as dreaming about becoming homecoming queen). Women also reduce their intentions to become entrepreneurs after reading a story that describes entrepreneurs in stereotypically masculine ways. In addition, awareness of low expectations for “people like me” prompts us to set harsher standards for our own work and opt out if we do not meet them. This may explain why women with B grades in computer science are more likely than their male peers to leave the major.

One strategy for minimizing the harmful effects of stereotype threat is to avoid invoking stereotypes. Unfortunately, avoiding explicit comments is not always enough. The social situation and subtle nonverbal cues can also create stereotype threat. The suggestions below can help minimize the chance of causing feelings of stereotype threat in others:



Stereotypes can suppress women’s representation in computing when they bias evaluation, inhibit performance, and distort choices. Because of the negative stereotypes about women’s interest and ability in computing, both evaluators and potential IT professionals expect less of women in this arena — and often route women into tasks where women are thought to be successful (without consideration of the individual woman).

When stereotypes prejudice evaluations, they affect hiring, promotions, and recommendations. For example, studies show that raters favor men’s over women’s journal submissions, job applications, leadership skills, teaching, speeches, and musical auditions. When sex is concealed, however, raters’ judgments are no different for men and women. The different results obtained when sex is known and unknown demonstrate that unintentionally and unknowingly, evaluators may unfairly judge women’s performances and products.

Stereotypes persist, in part, because they help us to interpret information. We often filter new experiences based on what we already know or believe. As a result, we tend to pay attention to information that confirms our preexisting beliefs and overlook information that challenges our preconceptions. Recognizing the difference between assumptions and evidence-based judgments is difficult, but necessary for bringing gender balance to computing.

  • Well-intentioned comments can have unfortunate consequences if they raise awareness of negative stereotypes. Think and examine your assumptions before you communicate.
  • Foster the belief that intellectual ability — like a muscle — increases with exercise and effort.
  • Avoid characterizing a person as a representative of his or her group.
  • Foster cooperation over competition to reduce evaluative peer interactions and increase feelings of belonging.
  • Provide intentional role models (see NCWIT practice sheet on role modeling).
  • When feasible, mask the identity of the person being rated, as is done in double-blind reviews. Make your process known, because knowing that evaluations are not publicly linked to a person removes fears that their performance has implications for their group.
  • Regularly assess outcomes to ensure that diversity practices have the desired outcomes.


  • Correll, S. (2001). Gender and the Career Choice Process: The Role of Biased Self-Assessments. American Journal of Sociology, 106(6), 1691–1730.
  • Shapiro, J. & Neuberg, S. (2007). From Stereotype Threat to Stereotype Threats. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 107.

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Author: J. McGrath Cohoon