The threat of stereotype: does it also apply to men?

The threat of stereotype: does it also apply to men?

The threat induced by stereotype activation, defined in the international literature as “stereotype threat”, is a complex phenomenon.


Advertising message There are two conditions: the first is that the person is aware of a stereotype existing on his group, for example “women cannot drive”. The second condition is that the person is in a situation where his own characteristic or behavior could confirm the stereotype on himself. Taking the example above, we can imagine a girl who has to park her car just as a man is passing on the street. The girl could feel observed and suddenly become aware of the risk that, if she cannot park the car correctly, she will confirm with her own behavior the stereotype according to which women cannot drive.

The first to deal with stereotype threat are Aronson and Steele, in 1995. This first study was followed by numerous researches on stereotype threat. Lewis and Sekaquaptewa (2016) point out that most research on the phenomenon has focused on the consequences on performance. For example, effects on sports performance or math test results were investigated. However, the authors specify that the stereotype threat can have other consequences, including making interactions between different groups more difficult and leading to less involvement at work (Kalokerinos, Kjelsaas, Bennetts and Hippel, 2017).

Research has focused on some traditionally discriminated categories, such as women or older people. Kalokerinos and collaborators (2017) instead studied the effects of the stereotype threat on men who work in female-dominated professions, specifically on male teachers and social workers. The aim of the study is twofold: to verify whether a traditionally advantaged category can suffer the threat of stereotype and if, in this case, this leads to less commitment in one’s profession.

Working as a teacher or social worker requires qualities such as kindness and the ability to take care of the other, that is, stereotypically characteristics associated with women. Men, on the other hand, are stereotypically described as aggressive, dominant and competitive, aspects that are poorly suited to professions involving children.

The question is particularly interesting if we start from this consideration: according to Steele’s original theory (1997), anyone can be subject to the stereotype threat, regardless of whether his group is stigmatized or not in society. Laboratory research confirms this theory. The authors of the present study, however, wonder whether, in the real world, outside the laboratory, the privileged status that characterizes men can protect them from the threat of stereotype.

Why do the authors speculate that men, although subject to stereotypes, may not suffer the consequences of the threat of stereotypes? Due to a phenomenon called “glass escalator”: men who work in female-dominated professions tend to have higher wages and better job opportunities, to be promoted faster and to be over-represented in leadership positions. The authors therefore speculate that these factors may protect men from the negative consequences of the stereotype threat.

To test these conflicting hypotheses, Kalokerinos and colleagues (2017) conducted two studies. The first involved elementary school teachers. The results of this correlational study indicate that male teachers report higher levels of stereotype threat. The threat of stereotype is associated in this sample with less job satisfaction and less commitment to the teaching profession. However, the perceived threat level is relatively low on average. This indicates that the threat of the stereotype may have less pervasive effects in men than traditionally disadvantaged groups.

Advertising message The second experimental study involves social workers working in the field of child protection. Participants should read a case report that has been handled appropriately and sensitively by the operator or, conversely, with poor sensitivity and without success. They then have to answer the questions “In your opinion, how well has the operator managed the situation?” and “Compared to this operator, how much better would you have handled the situation?”. The goal is to generate a social comparison between the participant and the hypothetical operator. The hypothesis is that male social workers, having to compare themselves with someone who has handled the case correctly, experience a greater sense of threat of the stereotype. The results confirm this hypothesis: male social workers experience the stereotype threat when confronting a capable operator. The threat of the stereotype is also connected with greater intentions to abandon the profession of social worker in men who experience higher levels of threat. However, a contrasting figure indicates that, overall, it is women who have the greatest intentions to leave the profession.

How do you explain this data? On the one hand, the study by Kalokerinos and collaborators (2017) supports Steele’s theory (1997): everyone, even traditionally advantaged groups, can suffer the threat of the stereotype and its negative consequences. On the other, the results indicate that the threat levels experienced by men in female-dominated professions are lower on average than the levels experienced by traditionally disadvantaged groups. The status enjoyed by men in the workplace could act as a protective factor against the threat of stereotype. For this reason, women would still have higher intentions to abandon the profession, since they know that positions of power will more likely be attributed to their male colleagues.

A possible limitation to these conclusions is that the male participants involved experience low levels of threat as men who consider gender stereotypes threatening could completely avoid working in female-dominated areas or early leaving this profession. This is why the authors suggest future research that may involve participants in the beginnings of their careers.

Having more men in traditionally female professions helps improve working conditions, such as pay, and helps to make gender stereotypes less rigid. For this we need studies like that of Kalokerinos and colleagues (2017).