Stereotype threat

Before a math test, women test-takers reminded of their gender did worse on the test than a control group who took the same test without the reminder. This experiment forms a classic example of stereotype threat, which Professor Susie Salmon from Arizona Law spoke about at the recent Moot Court Advisors’ Conference held by the Legal Writing Institute.

Every identifiable group is in some way vulnerable to stereotype threat, explored for a popular audience in Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi. (For an introductory version, here’s Steele’s 1999 Article in the Atlantic.)

In Whistling Vivaldi, Steele outlines the extra burden caused by stereotype threat:

The problem is that the pressure to disprove a stereotype changes what you are about in a situation. It gives you an additional task. In addition to learning new skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking in a schooling situation, or in addition to trying to perform well in a workplace . . . you are also trying to slay a ghost in the room, the negative stereotype and its allegation about you and your group. You are multitasking, and because the stakes involved are high — survival and success versus failure in an area that is important to you — this multitasking is stressful and distracting.

Professor Salmon explores more open forms of bias as well as stereotype threat in her forthcoming article on gender bias in moot court. Comments to female moot court competitors that their clothes or hair or bodies are distracting or they should make their voices deeper and lower all imply that the ideal of an advocate is male.

The second half of her article delves into stereotype threat, which has a more subtle, more common, and often unintentional effect on students who are members of a group (any group) with associated negative stereotypes. Stereotype threat does not have to be the product of intentional bias. But that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with: “The more that a person cares about performing well at a given task, the more stereotype threat will hinder that performance.”

For a moot court competitor, it’s hard enough to deal with nerves, deliver an organized argument, and answer the moot court judges’ questions. The burden of trying to “slay a ghost in the room” of negative stereotypes makes the competitor’s job that much more difficult.

For professors and supervisors seeking to reduce stereotype threat, there are a number of possible mitigating steps. For one thing, comments about natural ability are actually not constructive.

Legal skills are just that: learnable skills that can be built through work and focus.

Thus, a “growth” rather than “fixed mindset” helps law students in myriad ways including with reduction of stereotype threat.

Another method for reducing stereotype threat is to guide students through a self-affirmation exercise. Before you object, please know: this does not mean the Stuart Smalley-type affirmations about being good enough and smart enough and having people like you. Instead, it means writing about a core value you hold dear that makes you special. This type of writing reinforces the writer’s integrity. It also reduces stereotype threat. The theory, as Salmon outlines in the article, is that it provides the writer with a counter-narrative and interrupts the operation of the threat itself.

My favorite suggestion from Professor Salmon’s talk was the recommendation to give “wise feedback.” Wise feedback means that professors, supervisors, and anyone in a position of authority does two things:

  • Show that they have high standards.
  • Provide personal assurance of their conviction that the students/externs/junior lawyers can meet these standards.

Wise feedback is not just feedback, but mentoring over the long term.

Not only does the wise mentor need to deliver wise feedback consistently, she needs to communicate to each student that she cares about that student’s success and believes in her capacity to achieve.

Professor Salmon acknowledged that stereotype threat is a big topic. The resources below are a sampling of what’s being discussed on stereotype threat in legal education today.

ABA Council on Racial and Ethnic Diversity, Beyond Diversity: How Stereotype Threat and Implicit Bias Contribute to the Status Gap (2012)

Sean Darling-Hammond and Kristen Holmquist, Creating Wise Classrooms to Empower Diverse Law Students, Berkeley La Raza Law Journal (2015)

Russell McClaine, Helping Our Students Reach their Full Potential: The Insidious Consequences of Ignoring Stereotype Threat, Rutgers Race and Law Review (2016)

United States Senior Circuit and Chief Judge Emeritus Judge Harry T. Edwards, Reflections on Racial Stigmas and Stereotyping, Paper Presented at the 2017 African American Alumni Reunion, University of Michigan

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