Interacting With Sexist Men Triggers Social Identity Threat Among Female Engineers

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Abstract

Social identity threat is the notion that one of a person's many social identities may be at risk of being devalued in a particular context (C. M. Steele, S. J. Spencer, & J. Aronson, 2002). The authors suggest that in domains in which women are already negatively stereotyped, interacting with a sexist man can trigger social identity threat, undermining women's performance. In Study 1, male engineering students who scored highly on a subtle measure of sexism behaved in a dominant and sexually interested way toward an ostensible female classmate. In Studies 2 and 3, female engineering students who interacted with such sexist men, or with confederates trained to behave in the same way, performed worse on an engineering test than did women who interacted with nonsexist men. Study 4 replicated this finding and showed that women's underperformance did not extend to an English test, an area in which women are not negatively stereotyped. Study 5 showed that interacting with sexist men leads women to suppress concerns about gender stereotypes, an established mechanism of stereotype threat. Discussion addresses implications for social identity threat and for women's performance in school and at work.

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