A cloud of chalk dust coated Jesus’ shoulders. Thanks to my math professor’s forceful writing, white particles trailed behind him like smoke from a locomotive, settling on the crucifix next to him.
As you can probably discern from this religious object at the front of the classroom, I was not in a math class on Columbia’s campus; rather, I was taking Finite Mathematics in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana, at the University of Notre Dame.
The class roster for Finite Mathematics was like a list of Hall of Fame Notre Dame athletes, a “who’s who” of college athletics. I sat next to mostly men and a few women who grace ESPN highlight reels every week; who are idols for five-year-olds and 85-year-olds alike; who eat, sleep, breathe, embody a Notre Dame mission statement: “Play Like a Champion Today.”
As if their athletic prowess wasn’t intimidating enough, I had another worry: stereotype threat.
A woman enters a classroom full of men and is aware that she is one of few women. The walls close in. The brush of the eraser on the dry-erase board mutes the foot tapping, the gum chewing, the head scratching. She succumbs to the idea that men are better at math than women. She performs poorly on the test and fears Calculus I for the next year.
Or something like that.
A ubiquitous concern for women, particularly those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, this phenomenon is a popular and important topic of study. Much to the excitement of STEM majors at Barnard, the new Barnard President Sian Beilock is a cognitive scientist.
In a recent article for the Washington Post, Beilock explains how parents can develop “STEM-confident” girls at home and, ultimately, combat the gender stereotype and encourage more women to study STEM. Initially inspired by her daughter’s comment regarding gendered toys, “The girls like dolls and the boys like trucks,” Beilock outlines techniques all parents can employ to inspire “STEM-competent and -confident young women.”
Using President Beilock’s research as a lens through which to examine this phenomenon, how is stereotype threat expressed and combated at Barnard?
In her article “Math Performance in Stressful Situations,” Beilock argues, “Whether because individuals are made aware of negative stereotypes about how they should perform or are in a high-stakes testing situation, a stressful environment can adversely affect the success people have in solving math problems.”
One such stressful situation would be a classroom with uneven gender representation. “A high-stress situation creates worries about the situation and its consequences that compete for working memory normally available for performance,” Beilock states. In another article, Beilock writes about these worries, more often referred to as stereotype threat, as they impact women studying math in particular; as studies have shown, these worries can be incited by simply asking female students to identify their gender at the beginning of a math test.
In other words, the energy and brain space normally reserved for working memory is occupied with—consumed by—the high-stress situation.
But why does this occur?
Barnard psychology professor Steven Stroessner explains that weaknesses in our cognitive systems are responsible for making us vulnerable to stereotype threat, but that one can use tools to combat this threat.
In 2005, the Barnard provost asked Stroessner to take a leadership role in training Barnard faculty about the phenomenon of stereotype threat and how to combat it. In 2007, he made the website reducingstereotypethreat.org, “a repository of all the research on stereotype threat.” Although the website isn’t currently active due to renovations, it suggested concrete things people can do to reduce the threat.
One such method is by having role models. “If the stereotype suggests women are not good at math, but you’ve just been exposed to a woman who is a phenomenal mathematician, [the stereotype] is not going to carry much weight,” Stroessner says. “[Role models] can give you a sense of solidarity.”
Lizzy Brenner, who graduated from Barnard in 2017, says she desired this sense of solidarity and community among her peers who majored in STEM subjects. Although Brenner, who graduated from Barnard last December, says she was not encouraged in middle and high school as much as she should have been to pursue a career in quantitative fields, her interests persisted.
Though a statistics major at Barnard, Brenner took most of her classes at Columbia, because—as I learned from speaking to students—the majority of math classes are offered through Columbia (for the fall 2017 semester, there are seven classes offered at Barnard, while Columbia offers 28 courses open to Barnard students with numerous sections for each class).
When asked about the environment Barnard creates for women in STEM, Brenner says she felt like there was a lack of community among math majors in particular, where students studied together and were friends with other Barnard students in their major classes. “I saw my friends who majored in economics or psychology and they were all in the same classes with their friends, and I didn’t have that—at all. You are really on your own.”
Emma Malenka, a Barnard junior studying mathematical sciences, echoes Brenner’s sentiment. She explains, “In a lot of the other majors at Barnard, I think it’s much more communal. The classes overlap, so you get to know people in your major, but I don’t see that in my specific major.”
This is not an unfounded notion. Out of all degrees that Barnard granted between July 2015 and June 2016, three percent were for math and statistics, compared to 27 percent in social sciences.
Brenner remedied this feeling of isolation by helping lead Barnard Quantitative Society, an organization that, according to its website, “provides resources such as mentoring, program planning assistance and community to Barnard students majoring in mathematics, statistics or computer science.” The club was founded in 2014 by Emily Blady, BC ’16, and achieved recognition as a club under the leadership of Brenner and Sarah Linden, BC ’17, in 2015. The Society now has a moderately large following—over 100 members on Facebook—and helps create and promote a group of Barnard role models, just as Stroessner encouraged.“We just need a community,” Brenner says. “I think we could break some of those stereotypes.”
When I spoke with the Barnard math majors, they all estimated there were only a handful of others—yet Stroessner says one of the key ways to reduce stereotype threat is through numerical representation. “If you want to reduce stereotype threat, you probably don’t want to teach a class that has 29 men and one woman,” he explains. “You should try to create environments that are more balanced.”
Maybe this requires some quantitative reasoning: Given seven men and three women, calculate the level of stereotype threat. Round to the nearest tenth victim.
While Malenka says she does not feel affected by stereotype threat in her math classes, she notes, “It is definitely more of the men who speak up in the class, ask more questions, and challenge the professor.”
Mikala Merey has had a slightly different experience than Malenka and Brenner. A senior at Barnard, she was an economics and math double major until she discovered she could graduate a semester early if she dropped her math major. Even so, math classes were a space for her to meet people—women especially. She says, “I’ve actually met a lot of women in my math classes because there are so few of us.” And, within her sorority—Sigma Delta Tau—they swap recommendations for math classes: an informal Quantitative Society.
Stroessner also suggests that another way to combat stereotype threat is to praise effort, rather than ability—a point President Beilock reiterates in her Washington Post piece. She suggests, “Focus on your daughter’s effort. When your daughter starts math, science, or technology subjects in school, help her by talking about these areas as subjects she can and will learn, like any other, with patience and practice.”
“If you praise kids for ability, it signals to them that they possess a trait,” Stroessner says. “And so when they struggle in that domain, it raises questions about whether they have the trait or not.”
I can relate. When I was told by a gym teacher that I might have a future in the WNBA, I started to believe it. I decided that I should abandon my plans on being a ballerina or an author and commit my after-school hours to shooting free throws. But, when I struggled with my Little Tikes hoop, I got discouraged and decided that I didn’t have the necessary talent after all. No, sadly, I would not be on ESPN highlight reels.
Though Malenka is aware of and confident in her math abilities, she still says she enjoys the conscious effort needed to do a problem set. And, the more equations she tackles, the more she prefers that type of work to reading hundreds of chapters or writing thousands of words.
Stroessner explains that this effort can actually be somewhat independent of ability.
In a similar vein, he also discourages talk about brilliance. He thinks it lauds a particular group of people and that, if you are excluded from that group, you will find it more difficult to be successful. He does not think tales of brilliance are cruel or malicious, but, he explains, “Unless you recognize yourself in that story, you’ll probably say, ‘Well, I’m clearly not cut out for this, because apparently this person could do it when they were 16 years old. And I’m struggling to get a B.’”
Unlike in mathematics, there are multiple solutions to this problem. Brenner suggests a stronger advising system and more career-development programs centered on careers in STEM fields. Brenner also thinks getting Barnard students familiar and comfortable with data and data analysis is a way to reverse the stereotype.
But Malenka offers a different approach that is reminiscent of Stroesser’s emphasis on the need for role models: “Bring in more women speakers from STEM fields.”
Regardless of the tactics used to reduce gender stereotype in STEM majors at Barnard, President Beilock’s appointment appears to be a good step toward a solution that makes sure Barnard STEM majors don’t feel at a disadvantage because of their gender. Because, as Stroessner explains, “[Beilock] has keen insight on the nature of the threat. She understands what stereotype threat is, how common it is, and how it can undermine performance in a broad variety of contexts.” She is, at the very least, a good example of a successful woman working in STEM.
In the nave of Riverside Church at Barnard’s convocation—both my and President Beilock’s first—the excitement among the gathered students was palpable. As she stood at the podium, in front of a crucifix, and looked out at the soon-to-be-familiar faces, she told a story about failing a test her first year of college.
This reminded me of the way I felt in that math class, and of the difficulties that I talked about with Stroessner. With hard work, Beilock was able to turn her grades around, just as Stroessner suggests that putting a premium on effort can help alleviate stereotype threat. I felt encouraged and ready to take on another math class. Another encouraging thing Beilock mentioned? She was an all-star soccer player.
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