When Feeling Like the Underdog Pushes Women to Succeed

Your performance may suffer when you're aware of a negative stereotype against your race, gender, or another trait (girls and being bad at math, for example). That's called stereotype threat, and it's backed by two decades of research. But surprising new studies say that stereotype threat may not be as threatening as we thought. Sometimes, it may even help.

Threat Threatens Back

The two main problems with studies into stereotype threat mirror the problems in scientific research as a whole. First, there's the issue of publication bias, or the fact that researchers are more likely to submit, and journals to publish, studies that show an effect. (After all, who wants to read about how a potential new drug didn't end up doing anything?) That means that more studies showing the power of stereotype threat were published than those that downplayed it. The second problem is the way the studies were conducted: they were all done in a lab, so it's hard to apply them to a real-world situation.

That's why Tom Stafford, a psychology researcher at the University of Sheffield, decided to look into stereotype threat in a real-world setting: chess. Chess is the perfect game for this since there's a stereotype that men are better at it, it's a high-pressure situation, and there's always a clear winner. For his study, Stafford analyzed the outcomes of more than five million games played by 150,000 men and 16,000 women, both against each other and within their own gender.

Despite the fact that male players had a higher average ranking than the female players (which turned up the heat on the women considerably), women performed better against men than against women. That was regardless of whether the man was stronger, weaker, or matched in skill to her; whether the players were older or younger; and whether the games were played in leagues with an even smaller female minority.

What's Going On?

Stafford has a few thoughts about why stereotype threat seems to reverse when it comes to chess. For one thing, these players knew the game inside and out, and the research seems to say that stereotype threat rears its ugly head more often in unfamiliar activities.

It's also possible that stereotypes made men underperform because of "male underestimation of female opponents, misplaced chivalry, or 'choking' due the ego-threat of being beaten by a woman," to quote the study. This makes sense since a 2017 study of mixed-gender tennis matches showed that men are more likely to choke under pressure than women — something that may have happened in 1973, when tennis legend Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the famous "Battle of the Sexes."

However, there's another possibility here, too: in groups that are comprised of the most qualified people and also have large gender imbalances, you can expect that the women in the group will be more qualified on average than the men in the group. Some say that's why Fortune 500 companies with women on their boards have better stock prices, hedge funds run by women get better returns, and female members of Congress bring more money to their districts and sponsor more bills than their male counterparts.

But if it's true that women's ability to stay cool under pressure might overcome stereotype threat (or that stereotype threat might help them keep their cool), that opens up some interesting questions about other high-pressure mixed-gender competitions. Professional poker has a small but burgeoning minority of women, many of whom have won millions, and there are enough female billiards players to form their own league. Even in tennis, mixed doubles games that include men and women on the court are growing in popularity. As more and more women face off against men, it's exciting to see how culture might shape their success. Women may not be the underdogs for long.

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Written by Ashley Hamer November 26, 2017