Recently I have read about a phenomenon called stereotype threat. This term refers to the pressure individuals feel in the classroom or workplace due to perceived stereotypes about themselves. For instance, women are sometimes stereotyped as being less capable at math, which can influence the way young girls perform in their math classes. If they believe they are worse at math, they are likely to perform worse regardless of natural ability.
Numerous studies have shown that the simple presence of a stereotype can inhibit academic performance, but it creates an additional obstacle. If a student or employee anticipates being stereotyped, some will actively try to undermine the stereotype. For example, a businesswoman may fear being perceived as overly emotional by her male colleagues, so she intentionally minimizes her emotions and conducts herself stoically. Unfortunately, the cognitive energy she puts into combating the stereotype also inhibits her performance. Likewise, students who find themselves resisting a stereotype in a classroom setting are less able to learn and engage the subject matter.
It is remarkable and troubling that a stereotype can be so powerful. Fortunately, researchers have also looked into the best methods for breaking the power of stereotype threat, and they have discovered two primary options:
1. An authority figure publicly debunks the stereotype. In a study at Stanford University, a group of men and women were administered a math test and their performances were recorded (Spencer and Steele, 1999). Then, the same math test was administered to a different group of men and women, but with one small change. This time, before the students began, the test administrator told the group that there was no previous gender discrepancy in performance on this test. This simple statement debunking the stereotype about women and math made all the difference. The women in the second group tested better.
2. In-group role models. It is also helpful for victims of stereotype threat to see individuals from their own group (ie. women or minorities) functioning competently outside the stereotype (McIntyre, Paulson, Taylor, Morin and Lord, 2011). Having a talented female math teacher, for instance, can help dispel the myth that women are not good at math.
This research is fascinating, and it has led me to wonder about its application to women in the church. There are many stereotypes out there about women that are both sociological and psychological, so the cycle can be tough to break. If women believe they are not capable of thinking theologically, or leading and teaching in the church effectively, then that stereotype perpetuates an unfortunate cycle in which women are hesitant to even try.
That said, there are two applications that evangelicals can take from the above research. The first applies to men. In the same way that authority figures have the power to break stereotypes with a simple word, men in the evangelical church have that power as well. That is not to say that women should not also speak out against unbiblical stereotypes, but research seems to indicate that the power group–the group that is stereotyped as being naturally gifted or authoritative in a certain area–has particular influence in this regard. If men were to tell their wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters that women can think theologically, that women should be important voices in the church, and that the church needs the contributions of these women, that message would have a tremendous, positive impact.
In short, men, we need you! Challenge your wives and raise strong daughters!
The second application from the above research concerns us ladies. If we want to see younger generations of women pushing themselves and using their gifts for the Kingdom of God, then we need to be doing that ourselves. Change can be slow and discouraging at times, but the more women who are out there studying, growing and leading, the more we can expect younger women to follow our example. Change begins with us.