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The threat of sexism in a STEM educational setting: the moderating impacts of ethnicity and legitimacy beliefs on test performance


Social identity threat has negative consequences for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The present study examined whether legitimacy beliefs—beliefs that status differences between men and women in STEM fields are fair—put women at risk for experiencing social identity threat and poorer performance on a difficult logic test. Legitimacy beliefs served as a risk factor for both women from ethnic groups that are overrepresented in STEM (e.g., Asian Americans and European Americans) and from ethnic groups that are underrepresented in STEM (African Americans and Latina Americans), albeit under different conditions. Among women from overrepresented ethnic groups, legitimacy beliefs were negatively related to test performance when explicit cues to sexism were present. However, among women from underrepresented ethnic groups, legitimacy beliefs were negatively related to test performance when explicit cues to sexism were absent. The present research points to the need for inclusion of ethnic diversity in studies of women in STEM.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Because ethnicity is confounded with institution (e.g., only Black/African American women attended the HBCU) it is impossible to completely disentangle the effects of ethnicity and institution. We conducted a hierarchical regression analyses predicting logic test performance in which the main effects of institution (dummy-coded), the sexism manipulation, and legitimacy beliefs were entered on Step 1, the two-way interactions were entered on Step 2, and the three-way interactions were entered on Step 3. Step 1 was significant, R 2 = .35, F (4, 236) = 31.50, p < .001. Compared to the participants at the PWI (M = 10.93), participants at both the HBCU (M = 7.27), β = −.32, p < .001, and the ethnically diverse public university (M = 5.34), β = −.61, p < .001, performed more poorly on the logic test. The main effects of the manipulation and legitimacy beliefs were not significant. Moreover, the addition of the two-way interactions at Step 2, and the three-way interactions at Step 3 were not significant.

  2. 2.

    In addition, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions in which they were told that the logic test was indicative of ability in the fields of physics, biology, or English. However, this manipulation of academic domain did not have a significant effect, nor did it interact with any of the other variables. In debriefing, many participants expressed skepticism about the validity of this information.


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This research was supported by a Grant from the National Science Foundation: HRD0936722.

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Correspondence to Laurie T. O’Brien.

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O’Brien, L.T., Garcia, D.M., Adams, G. et al. The threat of sexism in a STEM educational setting: the moderating impacts of ethnicity and legitimacy beliefs on test performance. Soc Psychol Educ 18, 667–684 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-015-9310-1

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  • Social identity threat
  • STEM
  • Gender
  • Intersectionality
  • Legitimacy beliefs