For Women, Stereotype Threat Leads to Stress

There is no question that law is a high-stress profession. The nature of representing clients, in both transactional and litigation settings, means that we are often responsible for things like the economic well-being or physical freedom of other people. So–at a baseline, lawyers are already carrying a lot of weight on their shoulders. It turns out that women in the workplace carry more of that stress thanks to the problem of stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat has been well-studied and often discussed in the context of standardized test-taking African-Americans typically score lower on the LSAT, for example. Because of this, people often have a stereotype that African-American students are not as smart as white students. When an African-American who is conscious of this stereotype takes the LSAT, they are carrying the weight of worrying that they will confirm that stereotype by doing poorly. In other words, they not only deal with the fear they will personally do poorly or be perceived as not as smart as their white counterparts. They also deal with the stress that their poor performance would reflect badly on all African-Americans.

This phenomenon also affects women in the workplace. When women are confronted with a task, including tasks common in the legal profession—negotiations, presentations, competition—women are usually highly cognizant of the fact that they are perceived to perform more poorly then than men. Consider this experiment, undertaken with MBA students but wholly applicable to lawyers.

Female and male MBA students were paired and asked to negotiate the purported purchase of a biotechnology plant. Half of the negotiating pairs were given the information that women are often not effective negotiators because they are not assertive, rational, decisive, forceful, and unemotional. The other half were given neutral information. Women in the stereotype threat group confirmed the stereotype by performing more poorly than the men, while women negotiating without stereotype threat performed as well as the men.

Obviously, one of the most insidious effects of this problem is that it doesn’t require a multi-person workplace to cause problems for women attorneys. If you’ve already internalized that you have to worry about being perceived as less competent, you’re already expending a ton of energy worrying about defeating the stereotype.1

This isn’t just an emotional or psychosomatic type of response. The problem arises because, quite literally, too much of your brain is busy worrying to devote enough time to worrying about the task at hand. You’ve got a finite amount of working memory to devote to a task, and you’re using up a bunch of it worrying about your performance or the perception of your performance.

So how does this get fixed? Not by trying not to be anxious or trying to ignore that gender stereotypes exist. Instead, it helps if women actually imagine themselves to be “traditional” men–tough, competitive, risk-engaging rather than risk-averse. Humor about the absurdity of gender stereotypes also helps. Rather than believing the stereotypes are dangerous, acknowledge they are ridiculous and highlight that for colleagues and clients. Humor provides distance and diminishes threats.

Of curse, it’s incumbent upon men to work on not imposing those stereotypes on women. When men educate themselves about stereotype threat and work on acknowledging their implicit biases it helps decrease the chances of those stereotypes taking hold. Everyone benefits when everyone functions at their peak, and working on reducing stereotype threat helps that happen.

  1. This isn’t actually limited to women. White men also perform poorly if you give them a task—such as being sensitive to nonverbal cues—and inform them that men typically carry out this task more poorly than women. It also happens if you give white men a math problem and tell them they are worse than Asians at math. 

Leave a Reply