How Stereotypes Shape Your Success (or Failure) and What You Can Do About It

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An article published today on the Harvard Business Review blog discusses gender issues in the workplace and the factors that contribute to women’s higher stress levels, anxiety and and psychological distress in their work environment compared to their male colleagues.

According to the authors and researchers, a significant factor for this difference is a psychological concept known as Stereotype Threat.

In their own words:

Stereotype threat occurs when a woman is aware of a stereotype that women perform poorly compared to men at a given task — test, negotiation, presentation, competition — as a result of which she fails to perform up to her ability. Simply knowing about a negative gender stereotype can cause a woman to become subconsciously apprehensive about confirming the stereotype, leading to a reduction in cognitive ability, impaired concentration, and increased stress and anxiety.

Women, of course, are not the only group to experience stereotype threat. It’s also been documented by researchers among African Americans, Latinos, and people from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Even high status white men perform worse on social sensitivity tests — tests of their ability to decode others’ nonverbal cues — when they are told women typically score better on these tests than men.

This stereotype bias can often result in higher stress levels, anxiety and pressure to perform, all of which have been linked through research to a drop in performance.

So next time you are faced with a situation where you are made to believe that you just may not be good enough to take on the challenges ahead, here are a few tips and strategies to avoid making it into a self-fulfilling prophecy:

Step away from the urge to fight it: 

Stereotypes are unfair. It is natural to feel frustrated or angered when faced with such bias. And our natural instinct is to try to fight them and prove them wrong as hard as we can.

But unfortunately in the case of Stereotype Threat, the more you get involved emotionally the more you will be affected by it.

Reframe the situation: 

Instead of looking around the table and noticing you are the only woman or person of color present at the meeting, remind yourself of your achievements, your position, and the role you play within the company or group.

For more information on Stereotype Threats and ways to deal with it, click here to view the original entry which inspired this blog post.

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Ben Baker is the communication officer and content editor for the team here at Science of Zen. His interest in personal growth topics range from mindfulness, meditation, neuroscience, performance psychology and natural health.