Normally I would wait to read the actual book before writing a glowing post about it, but last week I was privileged to sit front row as Dr. Claude Steele gave a moving talk about his new book, Whistling Vivaldi, and his great contribution to understanding stereotypes. I was in the front row because I have lost count how many times my partner and I have cited Dr. Steele in grant proposals.

His biggest contribution to the field of women in science and engineering is the theory of “stereotype threat.” It describes the impact stereotypes have on our lives. It means that whether we are aware of it or not, we operate with the knowledge that there is a negative stereotype about us and that knowledge can hinder us. My favorite experiment on stereotype threat showed that if you remind a group of Asian-American women that they are women before a math test, they under-perform. But if you remind them of their Asian heritage, they kick butt. [1] There are various ways of “reminding” people to their identity. All those demographics you have to enter at the start of standardized tests? Best way to remind people to their location in society. Stereotype threat has been shown when asking African-American men to take IQ tests, white men to run a race, women taking a math test, on and on.

There is no group that doesn’t have a negative stereotype, and when that if that stereotype is relevant to them in an important set of situations, like the classroom or the workplace or the basketball court or something that they care about, then they’re going to feel this pressure. ~ Dr. Steele on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

As Dr. Steele goes on to discuss and I believe is detailed in the book, we can stop stereotype threat by educating ourselves and others about it. There are ways that educators can minimize the effect during exams. Of course the trick is to figure out how to actually do it, because the thing is that the more you care about being X and doing well at Y, the higher the impact of stereotype threat. The more confidence one has, the more stereotype threat will make an impact. Kinda sucks huh?

One thing that Dr. Steele did say at the lecture was that avoiding talking about stereotypes in an effort to shield children from them does not work. Apparently the one thing that Condi Rice, Skip Gates and Steele have in common are parents who sat them down early in life and said, “Life isn’t fair. People will expect you to act/think/behave one way because you are Black.” I can’t recall how he said his parents that fortified him to go forth into the world and become as awesome as he is, but I do hope it is in the book!

Stereotype threat theory includes discussions of why critical mass is so important. In other words, why it is vital to have more than one woman in a room/on a panel/on the Supreme Court. Steele talks about Sandra Day O’Connor during the NPR interview, as he did at the lecture I attended.

I will be honest to say that while I have used his work for years and applied it to my work, attending his lecture made me reflect on how many times in my life I allowed stereotype threat to impact my life. How I struggled to get into graduate school out of undergrad and allowed that struggle to take me off track. And so many other times. Steele talked about how he still finds himself realizing that he is allowing stereotype threat to frame the world. HIM! That made me feel so much better.

I hope to bring you all an actual review of his book later in the summer. My classes are over and I’m eager to read something that I won’t be tested on.  Even if in reality, this book is about the work I do day in and day out, so it’s actually more important than any test could ever measure.

The title of the book comes from a student who told Steele that in order to combat people’s stereotype of himself, as a young Black man, he would whistle Vivaldi while walking the streets of Hyde Park in Chicago. People stopped seeing him as a threatening Black man and, he believes, more as the University of Chicago student he was.

[1] Shih, Margaret; Pittinsky, Todd L.; Ambady, Nalini (1999), “Stereotype Susceptibility: Identity Salience and Shifts in Quantitative Performance”, Psychological Science 10 (1): 80–83