Monday, 21 May 2012

Stereotype Threat: disadvantaging women from the inside

One of the delights of my current job (as Interim Principal at Ustinov, Durham’s postgraduate college) is attending postgraduate seminars and hearing about all sorts of fascinating and eclectic research that our brilliant students are doing.

A few months ago, the stand out paper for me at one of these Ustinov Seminars was by two MSc students in the Psychology department, who were working on a field that was new to me, that of ‘stereotype threat’. This is the study of a well documented phenomenon: members of a group do less well on certain tests if they have been exposed before the test to wording that suggests that their group are likely to do less well. This is most often tried for women vs. men, but has also been shown to work for other groups, such as Black Americans vs. Europeans, etc.

So, for example, if a group of women are told that women tend to perform less well on spatial reasoning tests than men – or if that sort of commonly held stereotype is evoked more subtly, such as by asking them to list typical traits of men and women – then they tend to do less well on a subsequent spatial reasoning test than women who haven’t been exposed to the negative stereotype.

In other words, sexist stereotypes have a scientifically proven, measurable impact on performance.

Stereotypes disadvantage women not just by creating a discriminatory climate in which we then have to perform, but by actually changing the way our brains respond to that climate. They are, to some extent, self-fulfilling prophecies. Chilling stuff.

That got me thinking, as you might imagine, about what impact the current debates on women’s ordination are having on women in the church.

I’ve said elsewhere (eg in my recent letter to the Times) that one of the reasons women’s ordination is important is because women’s current exclusion from the church hierarchy justifies and entrenches sexist attitudes which have very serious consequences for women around the world. Rape, sexual abuse, violence against women and women’s political and economic subjugation are repeatedly justified on the basis that it is ‘natural’ and ‘God-given’ that women should be below men on some divine hierarchy.

That is obviously much more important than the mental health and performance of us who are lucky enough to be educated, employed and ordained. That having been said, I think its also worth noting that these views are having a very real impact on the ordained women of the church, and will continue to do so whether or not that woman is likely to become a bishop or not.

Those who are currently in positions of some influence in the church, the bishops and other senior staff who make appointments, often bemoan the ‘fact’ that women do not apply in sufficient numbers for senior posts. There are many theories as to why this is, and even whether it is in fact true, but it is frequently cited as a reason behind women not holding a proportionate number of senior appointments in the church. Whenever I publish a revised version of the Furlong Table, for example, bishops rush to explain to me that they would have loved to have appointed a woman archdeacon last time, but sadly there were no suitable candidates. We may well dispute such statements. But to the extent that there is truth in them, what impact might an understanding of the stereotype threat phenomenon have on women’s self-understanding, performance, and their likelihood of applying for senior posts – or indeed, any posts?

 A recent publication by the Diocese of Salisbury, ‘After July’, suggests that one of the reasons behind women not applying for senior posts
‘must be that many women have so internalised the Church’s ambivalence towards them and their ministry that they now lack the confidence to offer themselves for positions of responsibility’.
Such statements are usually discounted as being purely anecdotal. But the work of experimental psychologists on stereotype threat suggests that there is indeed likely to be a measurable and real affect on women’s performance when negative stereotypes are invoked.

And let’s be clear, negative stereotypes are invoked for a woman cleric whenever any job is advertised.

In the first place, we have indeed internalised the church’s ambivalence about our ministry, and tend to wonder whether a particular place really wants, or ‘is ready for’, a woman. But that is anecdotal. More specifically unarguable, though, is the fact that every parish profile currently evokes stereotype threat. The requirement for parish profiles to include a statement as to whether or not any Resolutions regarding women’s ministry have been passed means that even the most positive parish has to evoke the ghosts of ambivalence about women’s ministry. Even the most positive need to say that the matter has been discussed and no resolutions passed. It seems likely from the experimental evidence that simply the inclusion of this statement makes it less likely that a woman will apply.

Even worse, some parishes feel the need to attempt to get around the clear letter and spirit of the law by adding to that statement. I recently saw the particulars for one job which memorably included the following statement in its parish profile:
‘There is a wide range of opinion concerning the ordination of women. It has long been felt, however, that the views of all should be respected. Consequently, we have never signed the resolutions but we have agreed that the view of those who are conscientiously opposed to the ordination of women must be given due consideration’.
As a statement designed to elicit a stereotype-threat response, and ensure that no women applied for the post, that could scarcely be bettered: and in fact I know that at least one man was also put off applying to a parish that could be so disingenuously discriminatory.

Very occasionally one sees an example of good practice. The recent profile for an Archdeacon of Gloucester was an excellent example, in which stereotypes were deliberately subverted to attract a broader field of candidates. For example, the ‘your face here’ blank silhouette was deliberately unisex, but with longish hair to make it clear that a woman’s face might fit; and ‘s/he’, rather than ‘he or she’ was used throughout. Unsurprisingly, there was no problem there with a lack of women applicants.

I wonder if the church might be persuaded to commission some specific research on stereotype threat in job advertisements?  Women could, for example, be given a series of parish profiles, identical except in that one group had statements such as those above inserted into them. It would be relatively easy to measure, by asking which jobs they’d be most likely to apply for on a scale of 1 to 10, whether and to what extent such statements disadvantaged women applicants. I think they do, and I think an interesting test case could be brought arguing that the inclusion of such statements is indirect discrimination. Let’s remember, discrimination is – in theory – only allowed when Resolutions have been passed. But that very fact means we’re discriminated against every day.


  1. I wonder if stereotype threat is also why there have been no Conservative Evangelicals appointed as bishops since Wallace Benn. People don't apply because they don't think they'll be considered.

  2. Thank you. As a Baptist church secretary that gives me plenty to think about. We had a female student minister come to our church, who stayed to be a minister, was later promoted to lead minister and only left when she was made a Regional Minister. Would even mentioning that in some way invoke the spectra of churches being opposed to women's ministry? And if so, how do you get round it?