Exploring negative gender stereotypes in maths and science – Dr. Kathryn Boucher, Social Psychologist and Assistant Professor at the University of Indianapolis

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Kathryn Boucher is a social psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Indianapolis. She has a Ph.D. [Doctor of Philosophy] in Social Psychology from Indiana University and an undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Kentucky. In her previous role as a postdoctoral research associate at Indiana University she conducted research on gender stereotypes about women’s ability in maths.

Kathryn Boucher

Dr. Kathryn Boucher

“…Social psychology and related disciplines pinpoint a group of successful strategies to reduce achievement gaps in educational and organisational settings. These social psychological interventions are what we call “wise interventions”…”

Using social psychology to answer questions of great importance

I have always been interested in science and how the scientific method can be used to answer questions of great importance. I also have a deep passion for issues of social justice, particularly in ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to learn and grown to their potential and within their interests and goals.

When I took an introductory course to psychology and we got to the part of the course on social psychology, I realised I could merge these two interests of mine to test how bias impacts us and to develop empirically backed ways to reduce bias and its effects for others. I got involved in research on stereotyping and prejudice early on in my undergraduate studies and continued this work into graduate school and my postdoctoral position. 

Research on stereotyping

I am currently a faculty member at the University of Indianapolis. We are an institution with a strong focus on excellence in teaching, so much of my day involves leading lectures and discussions on social psychology, research methods, and statistics. I am excited to get to spend this time engaging students in psychological science. Additionally, my roles include continuing my research on stereotyping and prejudice, including students as researchers in this work, and using my expertise and training to help my university and community best serve its students and citizens.

Exploring negative gender stereotypes in maths and science

I spent a large part of my graduate work at Indiana University exploring stereotype threat, the fear of confirming negative group stereotypes that others hold of the groups to which you belong. Specifically, I have focused on negative gender stereotypes in maths and science.

In my past research, I have shown that stereotype threat leads to worse learning and performance outcomes for women on maths tasks. I have also explored what aspects of the environment spark stereotype threat: stereotype threat can be evoked by competition, comments from instructors or peers that indirectly signal their beliefs about women’s abilities, and being one of few women in the particular setting.

How stereotype threat occurs and has its impact

This work and past research by others in this field clearly show how stereotype threat occurs and has its impact. In a 2015 paper with Mary Murphy and Robert Rydell, I wanted to explore a different perspective on this issue: how do observers perceive the experience of stereotype threat for women experiencing it? Do they perceive that negative stereotypes will increase anxiety and impair performance as the research suggests it does?

In this paper, we found that people expected that situations involving stereotype threat would be anxiety-provoking for women; however, men and women did not expect other women’s performance to be harmed by threat when it indeed was. These findings highlight that we expect negative stereotypes to be motivating, with enough effort and confidence we can rise above stereotypes. In this way, we don’t accurately perceive the impact that stereotypes can have on us.

“Wise interventions” helping to reduce achievement gaps in the classroom and the workplace

Multiple-choice-testSocial psychology and related disciplines pinpoint a group of successful strategies to reduce achievement gaps in educational and organisational settings. These social psychological interventions are what we call “wise interventions” as they hone in on one or two maladaptive ways that we think about ourselves and our performance and give people practice thinking in more adaptive ways.

For instance, inspiring individuals to adopt a growth mindset allows them to see intelligence as something that can be increased with practice, effort, and receptiveness to feedback. Another strategy involves highlighting a sense of purpose for work that may not seem interesting on its face or directly relevant to one’s career or life goals. Lastly, for those in authority roles such as teachers and bosses, providing performance feedback that indicates that you have high standards and expect that others can meet them can eliminate stereotype threat and prompt greater motivation, persistence, and performance.

Implications of research findings in technology and business environments

My research suggests that companies and those in leadership positions should be more sensitive to the cues in their environments that can signal that women are expected to perform more poorly than men or may not belong or fit in as well as their male counterparts. This is especially important in organisations where women are numerically underrepresented such as in technology fields and top positions in businesses.

The importance of developing a growth mindset

A growth mindset is beneficial for both women and men to take on because it changes the way we view criticism, negative feedback, or other obstacles we might face in meeting our goals. Even the most successful people will, at some point, experience difficulty, and seeing this as a sign to increase one’s effort and to reach out and incorporate feedback and new strategies into our work leads to success.

This way of thinking is particularly beneficial for people who are members of groups that are stereotyped to be less intelligent or able in a particular domain like women in science and maths. By learning that intelligence is more malleable than we might think, these negative group stereotypes are countered and their power lessened.

Up and coming research on reducing stereotype threat

At the University of Indianapolis, I am currently working on several related lines of research. I am focusing on the most effective ways to teach others about stereotype threat and how to reduce it and assessing people’s perceptions of these efforts to reduce existing achievement gaps.

Additionally, I work with a group of collaborators across the United States and in Canada [the College Transition Collaborative] to implement, test, and scale interventions that ease the transition to college and improve performance and retention once students from differing backgrounds are there.

 

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