Who we are versus what they think

How do stereotypes hold us back?

Maria S. works as a pharmacist for a large company. She spends her days filling prescriptions, talking to doctors, and consulting patients. Like any job, it can be stressful.  But at the end of the day, Maria says it’s her experience as a woman of color that makes the job emotionally exhausting. 

She regularly overhears patients commenting on her gender and race. And sometimes, these comments are not so subtle. Once, a patient told her, “He’s the only pharmacist whose advice I trust and value,” pointing to her white, male colleague.

Maria says that over time, these experiences have made her self-conscious. “I question my worth,” she says. “I question whether or not I did something wrong.” When she’s on the job, she can’t help but wonder: What do people think of me?

Psychologists call this stereotype threat: the psychological impact of being aware of the stereotypes about us. Claude Steele, a social psychologist and Stanford professor, is known for his work on this phenomenon. As one of only a few Black students at his grad school, he experienced stereotype threat firsthand. “I felt burdened by self-consciousness,” Steele says. “Overwhelmed by it. I was Exhibit A of a group who didn't belong there.”

That’s exactly how author and professional poker player Annie Duke felt at the poker table. “The first year that I played in the World Series of Poker main event, which was in 1994, three percent of the entrants were women,” Duke says. She battled a litany of stereotypes. “They didn't believe that you knew how to bluff, for example, 'cause that's a level deep in your thinking,” Duke said. “They thought that you were very straightforward in the way that you play because, you know, you're a girl.”

She came up with a solution. She would use these stereotypes to her advantage. “There are strategies that you can use against them,” she said. “Mainly you can bluff those people a lot.” Duke turned stereotype threat on its head, winning the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions and the National Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2010.

Annie’s story is not to suggest that we should have to find workarounds for the stereotypes that exist about us. It can be anxiety-provoking, even debilitating, to focus too much on the preconceived notions others may have of us. But having some understanding of the fact that we all experience stereotype threat can help us feel more empathy for other people. “We need to have a language for coming together,” Steele says. “And I think this is part of it.”

As for Maria S., she’s still adjusting to her work environment, trying to find a way to feel less threatened by the stereotypes that linger around her. She reminds herself of what’s meaningful in her life, which is her family’s livelihood. She also feels grateful to have a partner who listens to these experiences and sympathizes with them. “It might take me a long while to get comfortable,” she says. “But sharing this story is a step towards getting there.”

ON THE PODCAST

February 8: Stereotypes are all around us, shaping how we see the world – and how the world sees us. On the surface, the stereotypes that other people hold shouldn’t affect the way we think or act. But our concerns about other people’s perceptions have a way of burrowing deep into our minds. This week, social psychologist Claude Steele explains the psychology of “stereotype threat.” 

February 15: Being able to see what's happening around us can help us make smart decisions. But knowledge – especially knowledge of how others perceive us – can also hold us back, mire us in needless worry, and keep us from achieving our potential. This week, we look at the paradox of knowledge.

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