Exposure to dominant male behavior can reduce women’s math performance

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Watching another woman be subjected to dominant male behavior can lower women’s performance on math tests, according to research published in the November issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The study of 133 women and 101 men was conducted by Katie J. Van Loo and Robert J. Rydell of Indiana University.

“This research suggests that there can be a relationship between dominant behavior and academic performance, and provides some evidence as to when that relationship will exist,” Van Loo told PsyPost. “That is, dominant behavior isn’t always going to be harmful, or even related, to academic performance, but when this dominant behavior exists within a stereotyped context (e.g., math), it can serve as a stereotype threat cue.”

“I think this is important because researchers and educators are continuing to figure out what triggers stereotype threat and how to eliminate these cues from the performance environment to provide a more equal opportunity for both men and women,” she added. “Dominant behavior in these types of settings acts as a rather subtle cue, then, and may even be more likely to be overlooked because this type of behavior can sometimes even be encouraged in potentially stereotype-threatening environments (such as the workplace).”

Stereotype threat occurs when a person is at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about his or her own group, and has been shown to impact academic performance. For example, research has found white male college students perform worse on math tests after being told they’re involved in a study to examine the phenomenal math achievement of Asians.

The new research shows that even subtle stereotype threats can have an impact in the right context.

In their study, Van Loo and Rydell found female undergraduate students who watched a video of a woman being subjected to dominant behavior by a man scored lower on math tests. Women who watched a video of a man and woman being equal in dominance or a woman being dominant over a man, on the other hand, showed no reduced math performance. The videos had no effect on male students.

The dominate actors in the videos displayed dominant behaviors both physically and verbally. They used more gestures and displayed more relaxed postures, while using commanding statements like “You need to” do this or that.

But context appears to be key. The reduced math performance for women only occurred when the video was about studying for math. When the video was about studying for an ambiguous subject, women did not score significantly worse on the math test.

“Dominant behavior doesn’t always lead to impaired performance, only when it is in a math (i.e., stereotyped) context,” Van Loo explained to PsyPost. “Another important thing to note is that seeing a woman act dominantly doesn’t necessarily provide benefit to women: women who viewed this video condition didn’t perform any better than women who viewed a video in which men and women were equally dominant. Thus, encouraging equality may be the most prudent.”

Van Loo also warned against exaggerating or overgeneralizing the findings.

“This work is relatively new and, therefore, I would still consider these findings to be preliminary,” Van Loo said. “Meaning, I would not feel comfortable making very strong claims or recommendations based on this research. More work will need to be done to continue to understand the impact of dominant behavior on performance and how best to ensure that both men and women are able to have every opportunity to succeed.”

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