“Stereotype threat” is a self-fulfilling phenomenon in which people — usually women and minorities — think they are at risk of being negatively stereotyped and end up conforming to those very stereotypes. For instance, studies have shown that even mentioning gender caused girls to perform worse than boys on math tests, said Lorraine Parker, Ph.D., the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering director of diversity and student programs.
Parker cites one study in which both boys and girls took a math test and performed the same. Later, they were given another test but were asked to indicate their gender at the top of the paper. The girls tested much lower this time.
“It was just a very subtle reminder that, ‘Hey, you’re a girl,’ and suddenly the women did far worse,” Parker said. “[Society] says that women aren’t as good at math as boys. And if you remind them of that, even indirectly,” it can have detrimental effects.