Stereotype threat depends on three conditions:

  1. Being aware of
  2. a negative stereotype
  3. about a group you identify with

Many of the activities that can reduce its impact are informed by reducing one of these three conditions.

1 Awareness

1.1 Don’t bring it up

Avoid doing anything that will cause students to think about a stereotypically-less-able group with which they may identify.

The most common things I recommend TAs avoid include

  • When using a teaching example with people in it, doing use names or pronouns to refer to the people. Titles (the teacher and the student) or variables (person A and person B) may seem a bit stilted at first, particularly if you refer to them by the full designation every time instead of adding a pronoun, but can avoid reminding students with less-represented genders (pronouns) or ethnicities (names) that they have those less-represented characteristics.

  • Don’t bring up stereotypically bad groups to say they are doing well. X got the high score, than they’re a Y! makes everyone think about group Y and the speaker’s belief that this is worth commenting on. Just don’t.

1.2 Non-universal culture

People within a single demographic groups tend to share a wide range of experiences, leading them to make to allusions that people with different experiences can’t relate to. Some allusion is inevitable in teaching, but avoid too much reference to (or too much enthusiasm for) things that other cultures might not be as familiar with.

No part of success in computing depends on watching certain movies or shows or reading certain books. It is not your job to educate students in the culture you perceive as common in your field. If they ask, and you happen to know and have time to share, feel free to do so, but expect unsolicited sharing to heighten awareness of not belonging to the main group.

1.3 Hobbies

It is good to relate to students and to share things about yourself that will help them relate to you. But be careful about sharing your hobbies and tastes if they are attached, via the many ideas come with one nature of stereotypes, to negative stereotypes or stereotypical characteristics students might not relate to.

But what if you really love it and believe everyone will be happier and more engaged if they know about it? It’s not worth it. Leave your stereotypical hobbies at home.

2 Negative stereotype

2.1 Don’t myth-bust

Many people’s first instinct in combatting stereotypes is to engage in myth-busting: that is, to bring up the stereotype for the purpose of providing evidence that it is false.

Don’t do this. Ever.

No really, don’t.

To understand why, imagine I am about to give you a swimming test and before you start to swim I say I know you’ve heard people with small feet are bad at swimming, but it’s not true. We’ve done hundreds of studies and found that people with small feet are just as good at swimming as people with large feet.

What have I communicated?

  • That so many people believe that foot size matters, it was worth conducting studies.
  • That that belief was so ingrained, we had to do more studies after the first, and then more, hundreds in all.
  • That I expect most people present to believe the stereotype; otherwise why would I have even brought it up?

In other words, I have expressed an extremely strong belief that the stereotype exists and is widely held by others.

I know of no better way to create a belief in a negative stereotype than to tell people that hundreds of studies have shown it to be false.

2.2 Express surprise

So what should you do when people bring up a stereotype? And they will, often to explain why they need TA help1.

While I can’t point to a preponderance of studies that this works, my recommendation is to express surprise: not surprise that the stereotype exists (don’t pretend to not know) but surprise that a UVA student would think it worth bringing up. We are educated people, and in my experience most of us really do know better than to believe in stereotypes. Expressing this can help students realize that they are not being judged on their group membership and that the negative stereotype they’ve heard about in the world at large isn’t as much of a stereotype here.

2.3 See individuals

Stereotypes are about groups, not individuals. To the degree that a student feels seen and known as an individual, all the negative stereotypes lose their impact.

Get to know your students. Learn their names and a few things about them. Call them by name, and express interest in them as people. Remember where they were last time you talked and show that recollection to them.

3 About you

3.1 Don’t ignore

A phrase I hear from time to time which always makes me cringe is I don’t see X. The intent is positive: they are trying to say they are not bigots, that they treat everyone the same. We’ll question the truth of that assertion when we discuss implicit bias, but for now let’s talk about the message itself.

Imagine you go to a party and tell someone you are a CS major, to which they reply oh, I don’t see CS; to me you’re just a major or that you are chatting with someone off campus and tell them you are a UVA student and they say oh, I don’t see universities; to me you’re just a student. How would you feel?

Yeah, so, don’t do that. To help mitigate awareness you shouldn’t draw students’ attention to stereotyped characteristics, but don’t deny they exist either.

3.2 Positive identities

Everyone identifies with multiple groups. Race, gender, age, ethnicity, home town, student status, major, hobbies: we all have many identities. It can be helpful to focus on those that have positive stereotypes as relates to school work in CS. In particular, UVA student and (depending on the course you teach) CS major are identities to focus on.

Building a sense of identity takes time and requires a few other characteristics first. Often people go through the following steps:

  1. Interest. You’re unlikely to identify as a computer scientist if you are not interested by computer science.
  2. Confidence. You need to believe you can succeed in CS to build an identity as a computer scientist.
  3. Belonging. Once you believe you can succeed, the next step is to feel like you belong, that you are welcome and deserve to be in the computer science community.
  4. Identity. After you feel like you belong, you can start to feel like you are.

Not everyone goes through this exact path, but many people do. It is worth spending a little time as a TA helping each student move a bit further along this path: helping spark their interest, or build their confidence, or feel welcome, or identify with the field.

3.3 Impostor syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a near-universal phenomenon where fully-qualified people, even world-renowned experts in their field, sometimes feel like they are imposters, like they are faking it, like they are in danger of being found out and rejected.

Sometimes imposter syndrome can cause students to identify less with their computer scientist and successful student identities, increasing their likelihood of relating to negative stereotypes. It can also increase their stress, compounding the impact of stereotype threat.

I am unaware of best practices for combating imposter syndrome, but various people I’ve discussed it with have suggested that knowing that it is a common phenomenon has helped.

4 About balance

Many of the above strategies, while correct when considering stereotype threat, might be poor recommendations when considering the broader space of combating inequities. For example, official affinity groups (X in CS and so on) are known to be effective in combating the feeling of isolation and culture miss-match many populations experience when operating in a field in which they are not the majority. However, discussing these groups can also create awareness of the characteristic the affinity group is designed to support.

Don’t go overboard. Where you can without interrupting other good work, use the above strategies, but don’t let them get in the way of other good activities.

  1. With undertones of only stupid people like members of my group need help—see Make help easy to get from the equity lesson↩︎