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ATD Blog

Avoiding Stereotype Threat in the Workplace

Friday, August 20, 2021

The world is full of positive and negative stereotypes. Most of us are familiar with various stereotypes and even have stereotyped ourselves. However, more recent social science studies prove that stereotypes can materialize to the point where they can hinder the daily lives of employees. Stereotype threat, though hard to identify at times, is active and alive in many workplace settings whether we know it or not.


What is stereotype threat? Claude Steele, professor at Stanford University and famous for his book Whistling Vivaldi, defined stereotype threat as “a feeling of anxiety in a situation where a person has the potential to conform to a negative stereotype about his or her social group, whether that is race, gender, socioeconomic class, or any other aspect of identity.” For example, a 2002 study conducted by professors Kray, Galinsky, and Thompson showed that women pursuing an MBA faced stereotype threat related challenges in mixed gender negotiations. The presence of a negative stereotype in a particular industry can contribute to lower performance. Other examples of stereotype threat include African Americans’ low scores on standardized tests, inequality of women in leadership positions, and low representation of ethnic minorities in CEO positions.


What causes stereotype threat? Steele noted that stereotype threat can be triggered by low minority representation and feelings of inferiority inherent in certain types of organizational structures. In workplace settings, stereotype threat can prevent employees from applying for jobs, asking for promotions, and performing well within an organization. People challenged with stereotype threat recognize that there are negative expectations placed on them. Consequently, they use up cognitive resources to either prove or deny negative preconceived expectations. Work evaluations with few holistic metrics are one example of an organizational structure that can trigger stereotype threat along with undermining comments made by co-workers.



Stereotype threat does not always have to be overt and pervasive. Studies have shown that being reminded that someone belongs to one group or another can have a negative effect on performance. Moreover, studies from the American Psychological Association demonstrate that stereotype threat can also lead to higher levels of disidentification and disengagement. However, negative impacts of stereotype threat can also include:

  • Anxiety
  • Reduced effort
  • Lower creativity, flexibility, and speed
  • Reduced working memory capacity

Ways to Combat Stereotype Threat at Work

There is no clear way to eliminate stereotype threat at work. However, several studies suggest these approaches:

  • Enhance job training to make people feel prepared and valued.
  • Positively shape the background information about a task.
  • Stress the importance of effort and motivation along with results.
  • Watch out for undermining signals.

Stereotype threat can be tricky to identify and hard to fix. Institutional and historical forces contribute to the presence of stereotype threat. However, ensuring that your business is aware of stereotype threat and taking steps to reduce its detrimental effects on employees can make a significant difference in morale and productivity.

For more resources around diversity, equity, and inclusion that will elevate your ideas, boost your initiatives, and help you drive meaningful impact within your organization, visit OpenSesame.

About the Author

Amber Bogdewiecz is an experienced copywriter with a diverse background, developing stories for a wide range of unique businesses. She is also the co-founder of the urban cycling apparel line, The Bike Dress, providing inclusive, minimalist styles that merge fashion and function.

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