How stereotypes shape women’s career opportunities
Despite having made significant inroads into many traditionally male-dominated fields such as law and medicine, women continue to be starkly underrepresented in fields such as computer science. Many theories have been put forth to explain women’s underrepresentation, ranging from innate female inferiority in quantitative skills to an unwillingness by women to sacrifice time with family. Our research shifts the explanation for underrepresentation away from women’s deficiencies and instead examines whether it is the image of the field, fueled by inaccurate stereotypes, that interferes with women’s ability to see themselves in computer science.
We found that there were clear stereotypes of computer science students as people who, for example, “stay up late coding and drinking energy drinks” and have “no social life" (Cheryan, Plaut, Handron, & Hudson, 2013). In several behavioral experiments (Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele, 2009), we found that women who enter a computer science environment with objects stereotypically associated with the field (e.g., Star Trek posters, video games) are less likely to consider pursuing computer science than women who enter a computer science environment with non-stereotypical objects (e.g., art posters, water bottles). These results held even when the proportion of women in the environment was equal across the two types of environments. In subsequent studies, we showed that encountering role models who exhibited the computer science stereotype in dress and preferences decreased women’s interest and anticipated success in computer science (Cheryan, Siy, Vichayapai, Drury, & Kim, 2011; Cheryan, Drury, & Vichayapai, 2013). Taken together, this work suggests that broadening the image of computer science – for instance, using environments, the media, and role models – may be fundamentally important to increasing women’s interest in them and their ability to be successful once there.
Selected Media Mentions:
Popular Science reviewed our research in their article, Nerd stereotype might drive women away from computer science, (June 2013)
Discovery News summarizes our findings in their article, Nerdiness turn women off to computer science, (February 2013)
The New York Times mentions our work in their article, Out of the loop in Silicon Valley, (April 2010)
Inside Higher Ed noted our study as one of interest in their blog, Mama PhD, (March 2010)
The Society of Women Engineers Magazine noted our results in their article, Classroom environments provide cues and impact participation, (Spring 2010).
Boston Globe summarizes our findings in their article, Love the work, hate the Star Trek figurines, (January 2010)
Wired features our research in their article, Star Trek stops women from becoming computer scientists, (December 2009)
MSNBC summarizes our findings in their article, Geeks drive girls out of computer science, (December 2009)
UC Santa Cruz's Science Notes described our studies and findings in their article, Of geeks and girls, (August 2009)
National Public Radio's To the Best of Our Knowledge features our work in a story, Prototypes as gatekeepers (April 2008)
Who is American?
Look around the U.S., and it becomes clear that Americans are racially and ethnically diverse. Yet when asked to picture an American, many people immediately conjure up the image of someone White (Cheryan & Monin, 2005). As a consequence, non-White immigrants and their children are seen as less American and have their identities as Americans questioned on a regular basis. In our work, we established that a prominent identity-based concern for Asian Americans is identity denial, or the fear of having their American identity unrecognized or questioned (Cheryan & Monin, 2005). We showed Asian Americans are not passive in the face of such threats to their American identities but react by altering their behavior, sometimes to their own detriment. For instance, Asian Americans who were confronted with a question indicating that their American identity might be in doubt (i.e., “Do you speak English?”) spent more time recalling American cultural knowledge to prove their American identity (Cheryan & Monin, 2005). In contrast, White Americans, who fit the image of a prototypical American, did not change their behaviors. These concerns are especially problematic for second-generation (i.e., US-born) Asian Americans (Wang, Minervino, & Cheryan, in press), who grow up in American environments and engage with American people throughout their lifetimes and are more likely to have relationships with Americans as an essential part of their development.
We then extended this work to the health consequences of being the victim of these stereotypes (Guendelman, Cheryan, & Monin, 2011; Wang, Siy, & Cheryan, 2011). We found that Asian Americans’ attempt to assert their American identities in response to a threat to their American identity resulted in the consumption of more American, and subsequently unhealthier, foods (Guendelman, Cheryan, & Monin, 2011). Trading a traditional diet and lifestyle for a prototypical American one may thus provide a way, albeit a potentially harmful one, for Asian Americans to assert to others that they belong in America. More broadly, understanding the forces that operate to constrain the lives of immigrants and their children in this country requires an examination of the sources and consequences of stereotypes targeted at their American identity.
Selected Media Mentions:
United Press International features our findings in their article, Immigrants eat high-fat food to fit in, (May 2011)
NBC News described our findings in their article, U.S. immigrants get supersized, (May 2011)
The New York Times mentions our findings in their article, What We’re Reading, (May 2011)
The Telegraph describes our studies and findings in their article, Immigrant groups change diet ‘to fit in’, (May 2011)
Negative effects of positive stereotypes
Asian Americans are often stereotyped as a “model minority,” or as a group that has achieved success in the U.S. (Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2011). Although this seems laudatory, our work investigates whether there are negative consequences of being the target of a positive stereotype. In the first line of work, we found that positive stereotypes stated in an intergroup interaction (e.g., “Asians are good at math”) elicited negative interpersonal and emotional responses among targets (Siy & Cheryan, 2013). These negative responses were explained by targets’ sense that they were being depersonalized, or seen as undifferentiated from other members of their group. Further studies revealed that negative responses were most prominent for those with an independent self-construal, who defined the self as separate and distinct from others, and less prominent among those with an interdependent self-construal, who defined the self as similar and connected to others. By bringing together work on race with work on culture, this work reveals how people interpret and react to being the target of a positive stereotype. In a second line of work, we found that making the stereotypes prominent by reminding Asian American women of their ethnic group made high expectations salient and caused women to underperform on a challenging math test (Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000). Although positive stereotypes may seem innocuous or even beneficial, this work demonstrates that they have negative emotional, interpersonal, and educational consequences.
Selected Media Mentions:
Psychology Today summarized our findings in their article, The pain of positive stereotypes, (February 2013)
National Affairs noted our researching in their review, Turning up the race card, (January 2013)
Authors from our lab published an op-ed in the Psychology Today article, The dark side of positive stereotypes, (May 2012)