Why do African Americans generally score lower than Caucasians on a variety of achievement tests? Why do women score lower than men on mathematics tests such as the SAT? Why are women underrepresented in fields related to math and science, and why are there so few female chess champions? These are questions that Dr. Claude M. Steele, Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences and director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University, will address during his Patten Lectures.
Dr. Steele's principal research is concerned with the role of stereotypes and stereotype threat on the performance and school achievement of black Americans and women in the natural sciences. Developed and investigated primarily by Dr. Steele and his colleagues, stereotype threat is an important concept that refers to the social psychological predicament arising from widely-held stereotypes about one's group. The existence of a strong negative stereotype means that anything one does or any of one's features that conform to the stereotype makes this stereotype more plausible in the eyes of others and even in one's own eyes. For example, if an African American does poorly in school, he/she validates the stereotype of African Americans as being unintelligent. If a woman fails at a math test, she validates the stereotype of women as being poor in mathematics and science. What is important is that this threat of stereotype confirmation may then interfere with normal and effective functioning, pressuring individual members of a stereotyped group to avoid and to disidentify with areas that might establish the threat. Thus, women will avoid math and science endeavors so that stereotype confirmation to themselves and to others is prevented.
This theory has very important implications. It accounts for many of the gaps in performance between African Americans and Caucasians and between men and women. Dr. Steele explains these performance gaps on the basis of stereotype threat rather than socioeconomic discrepancies, segregation, or discrimination. In a simple but startling demonstration of the power of stereotype threat, he introduced difficult (GRE) problems to African American and Caucasian students. When the test was described as a measure of intellectual ability, Black students performed far worse than White students. However, when the same exact test was described as a laboratory problem-solving task that was not indicative of ability, Black students performed as well as White students. Dr. Steele has concluded that when you control for all the factors except stereotype threat, you still have a grade gap between White and Black students, but when you control for stereotype threat, the gap goes away. Similar accounts of the performance gap between men and women on math tests have been verified. Thus, Dr. Steele's theory and research point to achievement barriers faced by women in advanced quantitative areas and by African Americans in school generally. Importantly, Dr. Steele has developed interventions that can overcome these performance gaps based on stereotype threat.
Dr. Steel has had a very distinguished career as a social psychologist. His work has been extremely influential for both its theoretical contribution and for its applied and practical value. He has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, the Distinguished Scientific Career Award from both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society, and he has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He has received honorary degrees from the university of Chicago, Yale University, and Princeton University.
One of the most impressive speakers in the behavioral sciences, Dr. Steele connects his work to many disciplines besides psychological and sociological theory and research, including education, law, and African American Studies and does so in a compelling but easily comprehensible manner.