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How stereotypes can erode performance

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We all know that stereotyping is generally not a good idea, right?  Sadly, I’m sure we all are also aware that it’s all too pervasive in life.  A telling example of just how pervasive came from a study published earlier this year that looked at stereotypes surrounding the maths and science abilities of men and women.

Now, of course, there have been numerous studies and reports suggesting that there is no gender difference at all in abilities in this area, but have stereotypes and perceptions kept pace with reality?

The researchers asked participants in the study to hire a candidate for a fictitious job requiring excellent math skills.  The selection was a choice between two candidates: one male, and one female.  Each candidate was identical in terms of their abilities and qualifications, the only thing the volunteers had to distinguish them was their appearance.

It emerged that male candidates were chosen twice as often as female ones.  That might appear superficially as though it’s a standard case of sexual discrimination, but the study found that this discrimination was applied by both male recruiters and female ones.

This bias occurred even when recruiters were given test scores for each candidate explicitly showing that each was practically identical in terms of ability.  Insight into this bias was provided by what’s known as an Implicit Association Test.  This test highlighted that there were significant biases in this area, which then carried through into recruitment choices, but that there was no real gender difference in who had those incorrect stereotypes.

Sadly, this type of stereotyping has also been shown to occur due within us.  A study by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson showed that doing something as straightforward and apparently harmless as ticking a box to confirm our gender can invoke the stereotypes associated with that gender.

It emerged that almost anything that reminds people that they’re black or female before you undertake something you’re stereotypically supposed to be bad at, will contribute to lower scores.  The study found that when no stereotypes were invoked prior to taking a test, these groups performed equally as well as their white, male counterparts.  As soon as the participants were reminded, however subtly, of the stereotype however, down went their test scores.

The research suggests that the cause of this is down to the distraction caused by stereotypes.  There mere presence causes those likely to suffer from them to think and worry about conforming to them, usually on a subconscious level.  Even this subconscious doubt subtracts enough mental energy however to cause performance to drop.

Now, it should be said that this fate doesn’t befall everyone.  Sufferers usually have a particular mindset that predisposes them to have fixed ideas about their capabilities, and when the stereotype presents them with a negative outlook, this message resonates with them and is hard to shift, which is all the more reason to try and develop an ethos that encourages growth and development, for both you and your team.

As it seems slightly easier to try and encourage the right mindset in your employees than removing any possible reminders of discrimination, this is perhaps a timely reminder of the importance of promoting a growth mentality within your workforce.

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