to the identity under threat. He says,
“Being threatened because we have
a given characteristic is what makes
us most aware of being a particular
type of person.” In Steele’s terminology, each of these identities can have
what he calls “identity contingencies;” each of these contingencies
can be positive, neutral, or negative
in a given social situation.
Based on research into this and
other areas, including the success
of girls and women in science and
math, it has been established that
when someone is confronted with
a situation that is consistent with a
stereotype, and that stereotype places his or her identity with a negative
contingency, and if the person cares
about this, then performance suffers.
˲ Girls perform as well as boys in
math tests when there is no stereotype
threat, but significantly worse when
there is high stereotype threat.
˲ It starts young: Girls aged 5–7 show
worse performance on a math test if
they first color a picture of a girl holding a doll, compared to coloring a picture with an Asian child eating with
chopsticks, or a landscape.
˲ Women do well at math tasks if
told that women do well at these sorts
of exercises, or if they read about successful women before the test.
˲White men perform worse in
math when reminded of the Asian
˲ Black men perform better than
white in athletics ability tests.
˲ But worse if the problem is presented as a problem of “sports strategic intelligence.”
˲ Note that the stereotype does not
have to be explicitly mentioned for the
effect to be felt.
People in general do not report they
are under stereotype threat; they say
they do not feel any stress.
47 But there
are physiological effects that can be
measured: blood pressure, sweat; and
which correlate with performance.
Why is this important? We want to
distinguish between people who can
do work but are stressed, and people
who cannot do the work. Moreover,
these effects are continuous: it does
not end at the job interview. An ideal
environment allows everyone to per-
form at their maximal level, but ste-
reotype threat interferes with this.
Stereotype threat can be mitigated
in a number of ways. Note that devel-
oping trust is essential, and several of
these suggestions help:
˲ A credible statement that “this test
has been shown to not be subject to
the stereotype threat” or “this test is a
study of problem solving, not diagnos-
tic of individual ability.”
˲ Remind the subject of a positive
stereotype: “You are a student at Stan-
ford,” or “You are Asian.”
˲ Critical mass is defined by Steele
as “the point at which there are enough
minorities in a setting that other mi-
norities no longer feel uncomfortable
there because they are minorities.”
An exact number needed is difficult to
define, but in orchestras, 40% women
was seen to be the critical mass: “the
point at which men and women alike
began to report more satisfying expe-
47 In the U.S. Supreme Court,
adding a second woman made a dif-
44 In another experiment, a
job brochure had photographs of em-
ployees; African American applicants
start to feel safe in applying once they
saw 33% of the faces being minority,
whereas white applicants felt safe at all
levels of minorities (33% was the high-
est used in the experiment).
women take a math test in a group
of three women, they do better than
women in groups with two women and
one man; and women in those groups
do better than women in groups with
one woman and two men.
˲Offering a credible narrative: It
helps to hear the experiences of people
who have been through similar expe-
riences and who have overcome the
47 This includes an expand-
able view of intelligence (that is, you
can learn), and self-affirmation, as ex-
plained in the next point:
˲ Spending 15 minutes writing an af-
firmation of one’s positive values has
been shown to have an enduring posi-
tive effect on classroom performance.
˲ Improving critical feedback: neu-
tral feedback, or encouragement,
does not work to reduce the stress of
identity threat. It works to say, “I have
high standards, I think you can meet
Many women1 and minorities47 have been essential contributors to the development of
computing; but their contributions are not well known.
28 Here are just a few:
Augusta Ada Byron King (1815–1852). Countess of Lovelace, analyst,
mathematician, the world’s first programmer Ada wrote a program for Babbage’s
Analytical Engine that computed a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906–1991). Hopper was a mathematician who joined
the Navy during the World War II. She was assigned to Harvard, where she initially
programmed the Mark I to solve complex differential equations. She was a fantastic
educator and spokesperson for computing and the sciences, known for her explanation
of the nanosecond. She was one of the developers of Cobol and an early advocate
of compiled languages, and believed strongly that the future was going to be in the
speeding up of networks and computing speed.
The ENIAC Programmers: Betty Snyder Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Kathleen
McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum,
and Frances Bilas Spence. During World War II, many women with a mathematics
background were hired to compute ballistic trajectory tables at the University of
Pennsylvania. In 1945, six of these women were assigned to the ENIAC, the first all-
electronic digital computer. Equipped only with logic diagrams, they built the first
programs, using the 3,000 switches and dozens of cables and digit trays. Betty Holberton
invented the first Sort routine, and the first software application.
Frances Elizabeth Allen, recipient of the 2006 ACM A. M. Turing Award, for
pioneering contributions to the theory and practice of optimizing compiler techniques
that laid the foundation for modern optimizing compilers and automatic parallel
Barbara Liskov, recipient of the 2009 ACM A.M. Turing Award, for contributions to
practical and theoretical foundations of programming language and system design,
especially related to data abstraction, fault tolerance, and distributed computing.
Clarence “Skip” Ellis was the first African American to receive a Ph. D. in computer
science, in 1969. Among his many accomplishments, he was on the team that built the
first icon-based GUI at Xerox PARC.
Mark Dean was the first African American to be named an IBM Fellow, in 1996.
He holds three of the original nine patents for the IBM PC, and was on the team that
developed the ISA systems bus, that allows the PC to communicate to external devices.