March Lab of the Month: UBC’s Social Identity Lab is breaking down gender stereotypes

How you look, what gender you are, there is a belief that a person conforms to a perceived stereotype about themselves. To better understand and address stereotypes and inequality, Dr. Toni Schmader and the Social Identity Lab are exploring how people are affected by social identities–and the stereotypes attached to them.

The Lab’s study The Second Shift Reflected in the Second Generation: Do Parents’ Gender Roles at Home Predict Children’s Aspiration shed important new light on gender roles in the home.

Schmader, Director of the Social Identity Lab and Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology at UBC, has published work on topics of social identity threat, stigma and identity, stereotyping and prejudice, self-conscious emotion, and gender roles. In this Q & A, Schmader discusses the lab’s research and how can we close the gap on gender stereotypes.

What’s the lab’s main research focus?

We generally study how people are affected by social stereotypes, although we also dabble in other topics related to emotion, prejudice, social cognition, and the self. These days, we are doing quite a bit of research looking at how implicit gender stereotypes constrain women’s and men’s choices, self-perceptions, and behaviour.

What led you to develop an interest in studying social identity, stereotypes, and group differences?

My research has always been aimed at applying theory and a variety of methods to understand important and real world issues of social inequality. So much of how we think and behave is shaped by our social environment, often in ways that are hidden from us. Our work tries to examine the ways in which the group differences we see in behaviour and preferences might often be the product of stereotypes.

One research theme in the Social Identity Lab is stereotype threat. What is Stereotype threat?

Stereotype threat is something people can experience when a situation reminds them that they might be judged through the lens of a negative stereotype. It is a phenomenon that was first identified as an experience that African American students might have while taking what they believe is an intelligence test. Research on stereotype threat has gained considerable interest because it might contribute to longstanding racial and gender group differences in performance.

Can you tell us what situations can lead to stereotype threat and how these situations affect people?

My lab has done quite a bit of work to identify the chain reaction of cognitive and affective processes that explain why subtle reminders of stereotypes can impair performance. Being the only woman in a high-level physics class or being reminded that a test will be used to evaluate intelligence are just two of the ways that situations can bring relevant stereotypes to mind for some groups but not others. For those who are negatively stereotyped, these kinds of situations can be uniquely stressful, elicit feelings of self-doubt, and hijack the same executive functions needed to perform well on complex or abstract problems under time pressure. People who don’t face these stereotypes don’t have these same concerns.

Although we started out looking at these questions among university students, our more recent research focuses both on younger and older samples. In one project with Antonya Gonzales, Darko Odic, and Andy Baron, we have found that even preschool aged girls perform worse at a task that measures their number sense if they are reminded of a belief they have that girls are worse than boys at counting. In other research with Will Hall and Elizabeth Croft (from UBC engineering), we are looking at women’s naturalistic experiences of stereotype threat in engineering during their professional conversations with co-workers.

The lab also studies communal roles. How can we close the gap on gender stereotypes and underrepresentation in communal roles?

Once we began looking at how gender stereotypes constrain women’s advancement in many careers, it became clear that part of solving that problem is understanding the stereotypes we have about men’s communal traits and roles. Although most people deny having negative stereotypes about women’s or minorities’ intellectual or math abilities, they more easily endorse the belief that men are inherently worse than women at being caring and compassionate. We are currently exploring how these stereotypes constrain men’s interests and choices. We also look at how men’s relatively greater reluctance to take on communal roles like childcare, then constrains women’s own ability to see themselves in non-traditional gender roles.

How do we close those gaps? This is an excellent question and one we are only beginning to understand. One part of the answer we are currently exploring is directly changing people’s tendency to implicitly associate care and compassion with women more than with men. Kate Block has some evidence in our lab that changing these stereotypes can allow men to more easily associate compassionate traits and values with themselves. In future work, we’d like to show that the gender gap in communal roles can be reduced by doing two things: breaking down the norms of what roles are considered appropriate for men along with increasing the intrinsic value of taking on these roles.

What are other members of your lab working on?

Simon Lolliot, a post-doctoral research fellow, is interested in intergroup processes, intergroup contact, social identity, diversity, prejudice reduction, and conflict resolution. He is specifically interested in uncovering the contexts in which seemingly positive contact can have negative outcomes, like a stereotype threat response, and how these contact experiences (de)motivate people towards actions that help members of the stereotyped group.

William Hall, a post-doctoral research fellow, is interested in understanding social psychological factors that contribute to group differences in academic achievement. His latest work focuses on the processes of stereotype threat of women in the workplace and how to engender success for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).

Kate Block, a 2nd year PhD student, is exploring how our own stereotypes about the groups we are part of can shape how we think about ourselves and how we strive to live our lives. In this realm, she is currently interested in men’s marked underrepresentation in care-oriented career fields such as healthcare, education, and childcare. In both children and adults, she investigates factors that stir boys and men away from such fields and towards more male-stereotypical occupations.

Antonya Gonzalez, a 2nd year PhD student, focuses on intergroup bias across development, and how bias can affect the behavior of social group members. Her current work in the lab examines the specific circumstances under which our unconscious, or implicit bias can predict prejudiced behavior.

Audrey Aday, a 1st year MA student, is currently examining how perceptions of implicit gender bias shape the processes and outcomes of dyadic interactions between men and women. She is also looking at how one’s identification with a domain or social group can influence their experiences of authenticity as situated in the immediate environment.

Jason Proulx, the Social Identity Lab coordinator and a UBC psychology honors alumnus, is currently studying the impact that the experience of shame can have on people’s motivation to change themselves.

Sheila Wee, a 3rd year honors undergraduate student, is working with Kate Block. Sheila is investigating how a lack of internal motivation and prohibitive norms stifle men’s interest in pursuing a career in nursing.

Mariya Balyuta, a 3rd year undergraduate student, is working on a directed studies with Kate Block. Mariya is investigating how implicit stereotypes linking caring values more to men than women might stifle helping and caring behaviors in men.

Emma-Ward Griffin, a 4th year honors undergraduate student, is working with Audrey Aday. She is examining how educational interventions about implicit gender bias can be used to improve willingness for intergroup contact and improve intergroup relations between men and women.

Can you tell us about any new research that you are particularly excited about?

I am particularly excited about the work we will be doing over the next several years to boost female representation and success within science, technology, engineering, and math roles in the workplace. This work is part of an interdisciplinary research consortium to better understand and support people struggling in these fields.

Can you describe the personality of the lab?

I am constantly inspired to be working with such an exciting and supportive group of people! Our weekly lab meetings are great opportunities to give each other constructive feedback, move our research forward, regale each other with fun stories, and share some good laughs. But I think that, above all, the dedication, passion, and curiosity that each member has for their work is what’s truly definitive of this lab’s personality.

Lastly, what does the lab do for fun?

We often go on outings to show our appreciation of one another. In fact, in our next outing we will be participating in an adventure-escape room mission to better develop as a team and show appreciation for all our research assistants’ amazing work this year.