Psychology Melbourne Blog

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Psychology that allows women to shine

Edited by Jill Wright,

Some recent psychological studies reinforce the importance of positive role models in allowing women to achieve their potential.

Women's performance in maths tasks is undermined, for instance, when they are reminded of the stereotype that they are innately inferior at maths compared to men.

The phenomenon, which applies to other groups, including ethnic minorities - it was originally identified in a study of Black college freshmen and sophomores in the US - is known as "stereotype threat". 

One antidote is being reminded of the success of high achievers from within their group, but as one study showed, this only works if the role model is credited with achieving success by merit, rather than luck. This is "Hillary Clinton Effect", so-called because the former US Secretary of State tends to divide opinion.

Now comes further research which shows that women can improve their performance in maths by pretending to be someone else - a man for instance. Shen Zhang, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, led a team which tested 110 female and 72 male undergraduates on 30 multiple-choice maths questions.

The participants were told that men usually do better at maths, but while some wrote their own names at the top of the test paper, others completed it under one of four aliases (Jacob Tyler, Scott Lyons, Jessica Peterson, or Kaitlyn Woods).

While men outperformed women overall, women who took the test under another name (male or female) did better than women who used their own name, and just as well as the men.

It seems that the alias allowed the women to disarm the effects of the stereotyping. They weren't distracted and did not unconsciously sabotage themselves.

The study has particular resonance for Australian women pondering the events surrounding the removal from office of our first woman Prime Minister. A Swiss study indicated that women are encouraged by the performance of political leaders including Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton. One can only speculate on the likely effect the treatment of Julia Gillard on future generations of aspiring women leaders.

They might perhaps benefit from a visit to the site created by two social psychologists which is dedicated to providing help in overcoming the effects of stereotype threat.

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.