A Threat in the Air
How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance
A general theory of domain identification is used to describe achievement barriers still faced by women in
advanced quantitative areas and by African Americans in school.
- The theory assumes that sustained school success requires identification with school and its subdomains;
that societal pressures on these groups (e.g., economic disadvantage, gender roles) can frustrate this
identification; and that in school domains where these groups are negatively stereotyped, those who have
become domain identified face the further barrier of stereotype threat, the threat that others' judgments
or their own actions will negatively stereotype them in the domain.
- Research shows that this threat dramatically depresses the standardized test performance of women and
African Americans who are in the academic vanguard of their groups (offering a new interpretation of
group differences in standardized test performance), that it causes disidentification with school, and that
practices that reduce this threat can reduce these negative effects.
- The theoretical focus is on how societal stereotypes about groups can influence the
intellectual functioning and identity development of individual group members.
o To show the generality of these processes and their relevance to important
outcomes, this theory is applied to two groups:
1. African Americans
who must contend with negative stereotypes about their abilities in
many scholastic domains
2. Women, who must do so primarily in math and the physical sciences.
- The theory begins with an assumption:
o that to sustain school success one must be identified with school achievement
in the sense of its being a part of one's self-definition, a personal identity to which
one is self evaluatively accountable.
o This accountability--that good self-feelings depend in some part on good
achievement-- translates into sustained achievement motivation.
the domain--- is one that has the interests, skills, resources, and
opportunities to prosper there, as well as that one belongs there
in the sense of being accepted and valued in the domain.
- If this relationship to schooling does not form or gets broken, achievement may suffer.
o basic question: What in the experience of these groups might frustrate their
identification with all or certain aspects of school achievement?
- One must surely turn first to social structure:
o Limits on educational access that have been imposed on these groups by
socioeconomic disadvantage, segregating social practices, and restrictive
cultural orientations, limits of both historical and ongoing effect.
By diminishing one's educational prospects, these limitations (e.g.,
inadequate resources, few role models, preparational disadvantages) should make it more difficult to identify with academic domains. To
continue in math
for example, a woman might have to buck the low expectations of
teachers, family, and societal gender roles in which math is seen as
unfeminine as well as anticipate spending her entire professional
life in a male-dominated world.
o Article focus on a further barrier
It is the social-psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation
or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one's group
This predicament threatens one with being negatively stereotyped, with
being judged or treated stereotypically, or with the prospect of conforming
to the stereotype. Called stereotype threat
it is a situational threat--a threat in the air--that, in general
form, can affect the members of any group about whom a
negative stereotype exists (e.g., skateboarders, older adults, White
men, gang members).
For those who identify with the domain to which the stereotype is
relevant, this predicament can be self-threatening.
- Negative stereotypes about women and African Americans bear on important academic
o In several ways, it hampers their achievement.
o First, if the threat is experienced in the midst of a domain performance--classroom
presentation or testtaking, for example
o Second, when this threat becomes chronic in a situation, as for the woman who
spends considerable time in a competitive, male-oriented math environment
it can pressure disidentification, a reconceptualization of the self and of
one's values so as to remove the domain as a self-identity, as a basis of
Disidentification offers the retreat of not caring about the domain in
relation to the self.
But as it protects in this way, it can undermine sustained motivation in
the domain, an adaptation that can be costly when the domain is as
important as schooling.
- Ironically, their susceptibility to this threat derives not from internal doubts about their
ability (e.g., their internalization of the stereotype) but from their identification with the
domain and the resulting concern they have about being stereotyped in it.
o one should focus on the feasible task of rifting this situational threat rather than
on altering their internal psychology
- Those students, not about the domain vis-a-vis the self, are likely to underperform in it
regardless of whether they are stereotype threatened there.
o Thus, although the identified among these groups are likely to underperform
only under stereotype threat, the unidentified (casualties of sociocultural disadvantage or prior internalization of stereotype threat) are likely to
underperform and not persist in the domain even when stereotype threat has
o In these ways, then, the present analysis sees social structure and stereotypes as
shaping the academic identifies and performance outcomes of large segments
There have been encouraging increases in the number of African Americans completing high school or its
equivalence in recent years: 77% for Black students versus 83% for White students (American Council on
And there have been modest advances in the number of African American high school graduates enrolling in
college, although these have not been as substantial as in other groups (American Council on Education, 1995-
Perhaps most discouraging has been the high dropout rate for African American college students: Those who do not
finish college within six years is 62%, compared with a national dropout rate of 41%
On predominantly White campuses, Black students are also underrepresented in math and the natural sciences.
Although historically Black colleges and universities now enroll only 17% of the nation's Black college students,
they produce 42% of all Black BS degrees in natural science (Culotta & Gibbons, 1992).
At the graduate level, although Black women have recently shown modest gains in PhDs received, the number
awarded to Black men has declined over the past decade more than for any other subgroup in society (American
Council on Education, 1995-1996).
Women clearly thrive in many areas of schooling. But in math, engineering, and the physical sciences, they often
endure lesser outcomes than men.
In a metaanalysis involving over 3 million participants, Hyde, Fennema, and Lamon (1990), for example, found that
through elementary and middle school, there are virtually no differences between boys and girls in performance on
standardized math tests but that a trend toward men doing better steadily increases from high school and into
And, as their college careers begin, women leave these fields at a rate two and a half times that of men.
- These inequities have compelled explanations ranging from the sociocultural to the
genetic. In the case of African Americans, for example, past and ongoing socioeconomic
disadvantage, cultural orientations
o through singular and accumulated effect, could undermine their performance. In
the case of women's performance in math and the physical sciences, there are
parallel arguments: structural and cultural gender role constraints that shunt
women away from these areas; culturally rooted expectations
Several findings lead away from these analyses above as fully sufficient.
- For one thing
o minority student achievement gaps persist even in the middle and upper
socioeconomic classes o Using data from the Coleman report and SAT scores, Miller (1995, 1996) found
that the gaps in academic performance (grades as well as standardized test scores)
between Whites and non-Asian minorities (e.g., African Americans, Hispanics,
and Native Americans) were as large, or la