Skip to main content

Why they leave: the impact of stereotype threat on the attrition of women and minorities from science, math and engineering majors

Abstract

This paper examines the effects of group performance anxiety on the attrition of women and minorities from science, math, and engineering majors. While past research has relied primarily on the academic deficits and lower socioeconomic status of women and minorities to explain their absence from these fields, we focus on the impact of stereotype threat—the anxiety caused by the expectation of being judged based on a negative group stereotype. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen, our findings indicate that minorities experience stereotype threat more strongly than whites, although women do not suffer from stereotype threat more than men. Our findings also reveal that stereotype threat has a significant positive effect on the likelihood of women, minorities, and surprisingly, white men leaving science, technology, engineering and math majors.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  • Alberta G. M., Castellanos J., Lopez A. G. L., Rosales R. (2005) An examination of academic nonpersistence decisions of Latino undergraduates. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 27(2): 202–223

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Alter A. L., Aronson J., Darley J. M., Rodriguez C., Ruble D. N. (2010) Rising to the threat: Reducing stereotype threat by reframing the threat as a challenge. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46(1): 166–171

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Alva S. A., de Los Reyes R. (1999) Psychosocial stress, internalized symptoms, and the academic achievement of Hispanic adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research 14(3): 343–358

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Aronson J., Quinn D. M., Spencer S. J. (1998) Stereotype threat and the academic underperformance of minorities and women. In: Swim J. K., Stangor C., Swim J. K. (Eds.), Prejudice: The target’s perspective. Academic Press, San Diego, CA, USA, pp 83–103

    Google Scholar 

  • Beckham J. C., Carbonell J. L., Gustafson D. J. (1988) Are there sex differences in problem solving? An investigation of problem context and sex role type. Journal of Psychology 122(1): 21

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Benbow C. P., Lubinski D., Shea D. L., Eftekhari-Sanjani H. (2000) Sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability at age 13: Their status 20 years later. Psychological Science 11: 474–480

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Benbow C. P., Stanley J. C. (1980) Sex differences in mathematical ability. Fact or artifact?. Science 210: 1262–1264

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Blascovich J., Spencer S.J., Quinn D.M., Steele C.M. (2001) African Americans and high blood pressure: The role of stereotype threat. Psychological Science 12(3; 3): 225–229

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brown T. L. (2000) Gender differences in African American students’ satisfaction with college. Journal of College Student Development 41(5): 479–487

    Google Scholar 

  • Campbell J. R., Beaudry J. S. (1998) Gender gap linked to differential socialization for high-achieving senior mathematics students. The Journal of Educational Research 91(140): 140–147

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Carr P. B., Steele C. M. (2010) Stereotype threat affects financial decision making. Psychological Science 21(10): 1411–1416

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Charles C. Z., Fischer M. J., Mooney M. A., Massey D. S. (2009) Taming the river: Negotiating the academic, financial, and social currents in selective colleges and universities. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ

    Google Scholar 

  • Chavous, T. M., Harris, A., Rivas, D., Helaire, L., & Green, L. (2004). Racial stereotypes and gender in context: African Americans at predominantly black and predominantly white colleges. Sex Roles, 51(1–2), 1–16. Retrieved from CSA Sociological Abstracts database.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cheryan S., Bodenhausen G. V. (2000) When positive stereotypes threaten intellectual performance: The psychological hazards of “model minority” status. Psychological Science 11(5): 399–402

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen C. J., Nee C. E. (2000) Educational attainment and sex differentials in African American communities. American Behavioral Scientist 43(7): 1159–1206

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen G. L., Steele C. M., Ross L. D. (1999) The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 25(10): 1302–1318

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen L. L., Swim J. K. (1995) The differential impact of gender ratios on women and men: Tokenism, self-confidence, and expectations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 21(9): 876–884

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cole, S., & Barber, E. G. (2003). Increasing faculty diversity: The occupational choices of high-achieving minority students. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

  • Crocker J., Major B. (1989) Social stigma and self esteem: The self-protective properties of stigma. Psychological Review 96(4): 608–630

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Darling-Hammond L. (2004) The color line in American education: Race, resources, and student achievement. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 1(2): 213–246

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eccles J. S., Jacobs J. E., Harold R. D. (1990) Gender role stereotypes, expectancy effects, and parents’ socialization of gender differences. Journal of Social Issues 46: 183–201

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eccles J. S., Wigfield A. (2002) Motivational beliefs, values, and goals. Annual Review of Psychology 53: 109–132

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ehrmann N. (2007) From the ghetto to the ivory tower: Gendered effects of segregation on elite-college completion. Social Science Quarterly 88(5): 1392–1414

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Elliott R., Strenta C., Adair R., Matier M., Scott J. (1996) The role of ethnicity in choosing and leaving science in highly selective institutions. Research in Higher Education 37(6): 681–709

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Espiritu Y. L. (1997) Asian American women and men: Labor, laws and love. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA

    Google Scholar 

  • Fennema E., Sherman J. (1977) Sex-related differences in mathematics achievement, spatial visualization, and affective factors. American Education Journal 14: 51–71

    Google Scholar 

  • Fischer M. J., Massey D. S. (2007) The effects of affirmative action in higher education. Social Science Research 36(2): 531–549

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Geary D. C. (1996) Sexual selection and sex differences in mathematical abilities. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 19: 229–284

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Georgiou S. N., Stavrinides P., Kalavana T. (2007) Is victor better than victoria at maths?. Educational Psychology in Practice 23(4): 329–342

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gupta A., Szymanski D. M., Leong F. T. L. (2011) The “model minority myth”: Internalized racialism of positive stereotypes as correlates of psychological distress, and attitudes toward help-seeking. Asian American Journal of Psychology 2(2): 101–114

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hair J. F., Black B., Babin B., Anderson R. E., Tatham R. L. (1995) Multivariate data analysis (4th ed.). Prentice Hall, New Jersey

    Google Scholar 

  • Hedges L. V., Nowell A. (1995) Sex differences in mental test scores, variability, and numbers of high-scoring individuals. Science 269: 41–45

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Herrnstein R. J., Murray C. A. (1994) The bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life. Free Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Ho C.C., Jackson J.W. (2001) Attitudes toward Asian Americans: Theory and measurement. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 31: 1553–1581

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Holden C. (1998) Boys + girls + math. Science 279(5356): 1459

    Google Scholar 

  • Hurtado S., Carter D. F., Spuler A. (1996) Latino student transition to college: Assessing difficulties and factors in successful college adjustment. Research in Higher Education 37(2): 135–157

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Inzlicht M., Ben-Zeev T. (2000) A threatening intellectual environment: Why females are susceptible to experiencing problem-solving deficits in the presence of males. Psychological Science 11: 365–371

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kang L. H. (1993) The desiring of Asian female bodies: Interracial romance and cinematic subjection. Visual Anthropology Review 9(1): 5–21

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lederman, D. (June 17, 1992). Blacks make up large proportion of scholarship atheletes, yet their overall enrollment lags at division I colleges. Chronicle of Higher Education, 38, A1–A1, A30–A34.

  • Lin M. H., Kwan V. S. Y., Cheung A., Fiske S. T. (2005) Stereotype content model explains prejudice for an envied outgroup: Scale of anti-Asian American stereotypes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 31(1): 34–47

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Major, B., & Schmader, T. (1998). Coping with stigma through psychological disengagement. In J. K. Swim, & C. Stangor (Eds.), Prejudice: The Target’s perspective (pp. 219–241)

  • Major B., Spencer S. J., Schmader T., Wolfe C., Crocker J. (1998) Coping with negative stereotypes about intellectual performance: The role of psychological disengagement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 24(1): 34–50

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Massey, D. S., & Fischer, M. J. (2005). Stereotype threat and academic performance: New findings from a racially diverse sample of college freshmen. Du bois review: Social science research on race, 2(1), 45–67. doi:10.1017/S1742058X05050058.

  • Massey D. S., Charles C. Z., Lundy G. F., Fischer M. J. (2006) The source of the river: The social origins of freshmen at America’s selective colleges and universities. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ

    Google Scholar 

  • National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics: (2007) S&E degrees, by Race/ Ethnicity of recipients: 1995–2004 No NSF 07-308. National Science Foundation, Arlington, VA

    Google Scholar 

  • Nussbaum D. A., Steele C. M. (2007) Situational disengagement and persistence in the face of adversity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43: 127–134

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Owens J., Massey D. S. (2011) Stereotype threat and college academic performance: A latent variables approach. Social Science Research 40(1): 150–166

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Park, L. E., Cook, K. E., & Greenwald, A. G. (2001). Implicit indicators of women’s persistence in math, science, and engineering Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research, 6, 145-145-152.

    Google Scholar 

  • Quinn D. M., Spencer S. J. (2001) The interference of stereotype threat with women’s generation of mathematical problem-solving strategies. Journal of Social Issues 57(1): 55–71

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rinehart, J., & Watson, K. (1998). A campus climate survey at texas A&M university. Proceedings of the 1998 women in engineering conference: Creating a global engineering community through partnerships, (93-100), West Lafayette, IN.

  • Rivas-Drake D., Mooney M. (2008) Profiles of Latino adaptation at elite colleges and universities. American Journal of Community Psychology 42(1–2): 1–16

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Robinson N. M., Abbott R. D., Berninger V. W., Busse J. (1996) The structure of abilities in mathematically precocious young children: Gender similarities and differences. Journal of Educational Psychology 88(341): 341–352

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schmader T., Johns M. (2003) Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85(3): 440–452

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schmader T., Johns M., Barquissau M. (2004) The costs of accepting gender differences: The role of stereotype endorsement in women’s experience in the math domain. Sex Roles 50(11–12): 835–850

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schmader T., Major B., Gramzow R. H. (2001) Coping with ethnic stereotypes in the academic domain: Perceived injustice and psychological disengagement. The Journal of Social Issues 57(1): 93–111

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shih M., Pittinsky T.L., Ambady N. (1999) Stereotype susceptibility: Identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance. Psychological Science 10: 80–83

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sinclair S., Hardin C. D., Lowery B. S. (2006) Self-stereotyping in the context of multiple social identities. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90(4): 529–542

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smedley B. D., Myers H. F., Harrell S. P. (1993) Minority-status stresses and the college adjustment of ethnic minority freshmen. The Journal of Higher Education 64(4): 434–452

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Spencer S.J., Steele C.M., Quinn D.M. (1999) Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35: 4–28

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stangor, C., & Sechrist, G. (1998). Conceptualizing the determinants of academic choice and task performance across social groups. In J. K. Swim, & C. Stangor (Eds.), Prejudice: The target’s perspective (pp. 105–124). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

  • Steele C. M. (1997) A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist 52(6): 613–629

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Steele C. M., Aronson J. (1995) Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69(5): 797–811

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Steele J., James J.B., Barnett R.C. (2002a) Learning in a Man’s world: Examining the perceptions of undergraduate women in male-dominated academic areas. Psychology of Women Quarterly 26(1): 46–50

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Steele C. M., Spencer S. J., Aronson J. (2002b) Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat. In: Zanna M. P., Zanna M. P. (Eds.), Advances in experimental social psychology, vol. 34. Academic Press, San Diego, CA, USA, pp 379–440

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Sue S., Sue D.W, Sue L., Takeuchi D.T. (1995) Psychopathology among Asian Americans: A model minority?. Cultural Diversity and Mental Health 1: 39–51

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sy S. R., Brittian A. (2008) The impact of family obligations on young women’s decisions during the transition to college: A comparison of Latina, European American, and Asian American students. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 58(9–10): 729–737

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • The success story of one minority group in the U.S., (December 26, 1966). U.S. News & World Report 73–76.

  • Torres K. C., Charles C. Z. (2004) Metastereotypes and the black-white divide: A qualitative view of race on an elite college campus. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 1(1): 115–149

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Updegraff K. A., Eccles J. S. (1996) Course enrollment as self-regulatory behavior: Who takes optional high school math courses?. Learning and Individual Differences 8(3): 239–259

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wheeler S. C., Petty R. E. (2001) The effects of stereotype activation on behavior: A review of possible mechanisms. Psychological Bulletin 127(6): 797–826

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wong P., Lai C. F., Nagasawa R., Lin T. (1998) Asian Americans as a model minority: Self-perceptions and perceptions by other racial groups. Sociological Perspectives 41(1): 95–118

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zia, Helen Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. (2001). Asian American dreams: The emergence of an American people (1st ed.) Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Maya A. Beasley.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Beasley, M.A., Fischer, M.J. Why they leave: the impact of stereotype threat on the attrition of women and minorities from science, math and engineering majors. Soc Psychol Educ 15, 427–448 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-012-9185-3

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-012-9185-3

Keywords

  • Minorities
  • Women
  • Higher education
  • Science
  • Majors
  • Stem fields
  • Stereotype threat