2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
Teachers College Columbia University

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Fighting Stereotype Threat in the Workplace


Loriann Roberson

Loriann Roberson (file photo)

A lot of good research on diversity training is not being applied.
Loriann Roberson is working to bridge that gap  


FROM HER EARLIEST EXPERIENCE WITH diversity training, Loriann Roberson has been troubled by what she sees as a gulf between theory and practice. “It just drove me crazy how some of the diversity training didn’t apply any of the good practices identified by research,” says Roberson, Professor of Education in TC’s Department of Organization and Leadership. “It was well meaning, but not very useful.”

Roberson is working to address that issue on a variety of fronts. Recently, as consultants to a federally funded study of women scientists, she and fellow TC faculty member Caryn Block amassed a database of how these women perceive and respond to stereotype threat. Using that data, they are creating a survey to measure the level of perceived stereotype threat within organizations.

Roberson also is writing a book on diversity management strategies, and she and her research partner Carol Kulik, of the University of South Australia, were recently commissioned to write a chapter for The Oxford Handbook on Workplace Diversity. The two are particularly engaged in translating research insights about stereotype threat to the workplace.

Stereotype threat, a concept pioneered by social scientist Claude Steele, is the extent to which the perception of being stereotyped influences a person’s performance. For example, researchers have shown that women may do worse on a math test than male counterparts if they’re told, as they sit down to take the test, that women have fared more poorly on the test in the past—or, more broadly, that women simply aren’t good at math. Similarly, when white adults are told, just prior to taking a test of unconscious racial attitudes, that whites typically react more positively to white faces than faces of color, they will generally reveal more negative racial attitudes on the test.

Based on these and other findings, Roberson and Kulik argue the need for safeguards in many common workplace situations. Take, for example, a white manager who goes out of her way to give an employee of color a so-called stretch assignment that might represent an opportunity for advancement. Since stereotype threat occurs on the most difficult tasks, the manager needs to be aware of that risk and to help the employee develop strategies for screening out or coping with undermining signals from others. “Managers who aren’t aware of stereotype threat and give stretch assignments might see failure, because coping with stereotype threat takes up cognitive resources,” Roberson says. “And when employees are struggling with it, they don’t have enough resources to work on the task at hand.”

Roberson and Kulik are also examining the option of Employee Resource Groups, which they argue can be highly beneficial in countering stereotype threat by providing at-risk employees with access to high-achieving mentors in the organization who are of the same gender or race. Employee Resource Groups were previously examined during the 1990s by researcher Ray Friedman, who found that the networks “facilitate advancement because people expand their social networks” even across racial or ethnic lines, which increases their resources and information. For Roberson, anything that enlarges an employee’s context at work beyond the constraints of stereotypes is beneficial. “Managers need to attend to managing the environment and reducing the cues that signal to employees that stereotypes are operating,” she and Kulik write. “Only then can the benefits of diversity be realized.”   

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