Truman National Security Project

Threatening Stereotypes and Testing Women for Combat Jobs

By Kayla Williams | 9.9.13

In the wake of the announcement lifting the outright ban on women being assigned to ground combat arms jobs and small units, the military is focusing intensely on physical demands and abilities as they consider which positions and roles should be opened to women. A phenomenon known as stereotype threat could skew the results of this testing, which could have major policy implications.

Extensive research has documented the effects of stereotype threats: when people are reminded of stereotypes about a group they belong to, performance is affected. Best known are experiments demonstrating that women do worse when reminded of widely-known negative stereotypes about our math abilities and African Americans’ scores suffer when reminded of stereotypes about cognitive abilities more broadly. However, other groups are also affected, from the obese to the elderly – and athletic, not just cognitive, abilities can be impacted when stereotypes are triggered. Turns out that “white men can’t jump” may be somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy! Stereotype threat has been shown to affect the performance of skilled women soccer players as well as novice black and white golfers.

The mechanisms that make this process work are still being studied, but it seems that a number of processes come into play. Strong group identification and awareness of the stigma magnify the effect. Trying to do better than others leads to stronger motivation and better performance, whereas trying not to do worse than others leads to an increase in anxiety, loss of motivation, and poor performance, perhaps by subconsciously causing those being tested to exert less effort, self-handicap, and take fewer risks. Intrusive negative thoughts at the beginning of the test may harm performance, which increases the negative thinking, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle.

Importantly, it is not necessary to believe that a stereotype is true about oneself for it to affect you – the mere presence of the stereotype in the environment is enough to affect cognition, motivation, and behavior, and even women who feel competent in a ‘masculine’ sport may perform poorly after stereotypes are activated. Environmental cues may trigger widely known stereotypes in the minds of participants, but new information can also come into play: men who were told that men do worse than women on a specific golf-putting task did worse on it. Similar to the ‘choking under pressure’ phenomenon, stereotype threat effects on motor tasks may be due to overthinking. And in a fascinating flip, a stereotypelift provided by activating negative stereotypes about women’s abilities can boost men’s motor performance by increasing their self-confidence and motivation – so when gender stereotypes come into play, they may simultaneously decrease women’s performance and increase men’s performance.

Athletic tasks requiring careful cognitive attention, like golf and soccer, aren’t the only ones affected. A study on older people’s hand grip strength and persistence (which is a widely used diagnostic measure of muscle strength that requires little or no skill) showed that social comparison with younger people can impair performance by up to 50%. Just activating the stereotype that elderly people are weaker was enough to significantly impair both strength and persistence.

Research shows that those most negatively affected by the threat of confirming a negative stereotype are people whose sense of self-worth is invested in how well they perform in that activity and those that highly value the stereotyped domain.

All of the aspects that can increase the influence of stereotype threat – strong group identification, a desire not to fail, environmental pressures, an evaluative situation, stereotype lift going to men, investing self-worth in the outcome, and valuing the domain in question – could coalesce into a perfect storm when the military begins evaluating women for thephysical strength and skills required for combat arms jobs and/or units currently closed to them. In the heavily male-dominated military, cues that remind women of their gender abound, from subtle visuals (like the difference in authorized hairstyles) to the blatant (like loudly being called “females”). If testing scenarios are set up so women participants fear that performing poorly on a diagnostic test of physical capabilities could help determine whether or not all women are allowed into closed jobs (in the military to which they have dedicated their careers), it will be an incredibly high-stakes environment. This is highly likely to activate stereotype threat reactions and decrease women’s performances.

Luckily, there are evidence-based ways to lessen the impact of stereotype threats. Though these come primarily from academic settings, the military should take this opportunity to determine whether they are also effective in settings testing physical capability. If so, the services should assure that stereotype threats are reduced in order to prevent diagnostic and evaluative test results from being fatally skewed. Below is a sampling of methods to reduce the effects of stereotype threatthat should be implemented:

  • Help those being evaluated manage feelings of stress and threat by specifically discussing stereotype threat so they can attribute their anxiety to it rather than to the risk of failure and also help them re-frame stress as a potential facilitator of strong performance (for example, remind them of women performing incredible feats of strength to save children).
  • Remove cues that trigger worries about stereotypes when possible: hand-carried scorecards should not indicate gender, for example.
  • Include relatively large numbers of women testers and evaluators.
  • Communicate the fairness of the tests and emphasize that they are validated task-based requirements of a given job.
  • Convey high standards and confidence that women can meet them.
  • Present positive women role models, such as examples of elite women athletes and women soldiers who have excelled in combat.
  • Blur intergroup boundaries by asking women to identify characteristics men and women share, which improves women’s performance. Those introducing evaluations of women should emphasize the shared attributes of male and female soldiers, such as dedication to the unit and wearing the same uniform.

Taking steps such as these to make women aware of the power of stereotype threats –while simultaneously reducing their presence in the evaluative environment – can help ensure the validity and accuracy of tests of physical ability when opening combat arms jobs and/or units to women. This is a vital component of ensuring the best-qualified servicemembers are available for each position.

Kayla Williams is a Truman National Security Project Fellow. This article originally appeared on