How ‘Stereotype Threat’ Can Ruin Your Career


By J. Julian

I was recently introduced to the term “stereotype threat” and it has been a real eye-opener to be sure. I had not heard of this terminology before or any of the studies which have been carried out, but it goes a long way to explain some of the deep frustrations and discomfort I have felt during my pursuit of a career in the music industry as a producer and studio engineer. For all those times I have felt uncomfortable, ill at ease, self-conscious, defensive, doubted my own competence, and self-sabotaged, quit, or acted out of character, I can see “stereotype threat” as a huge contributor.

Stereotype threat was first identified in 1995 in a study carried out by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson. This original study was designed to identify why African American students underperformed in certain types of academic tests. What they found was, when tests were framed as a test of “intellectual ability”, the negative stereotype of the group i.e. being less intelligent than white Europeans, led to stereotype threat, and the fear that they would confirm this negative attribute to be true — leading to self-consciousness, anxiety and poor scores.

When the test was framed as being a “problem-solving task, non-diagnostic of ability”, this pressure was removed, and the African American group scored on a par with the white students. The additional mental load of identifying with a negatively stereotyped group reduces performance, increases stress, and ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Stereotype threat is damaging in real-world situations as well, and it is the people who care the most about their field and succeeding in that field who are the most affected by it. Imagine this scenario: If you were a stay-at-home mum and you needed to go to a garage to get a wiper-blade replaced on your car, you would not think too much about it. There would be no cause for stereotype threat as is not “your field”, and it does not matter if you are viewed as a “silly woman” and a confirmation of a negative stereotype, you are just going to pay your money and get your blade fitted and go home thinking nothing more about it.

Now imagine you are a girl fascinated by science and math, who has started studying mechanical engineering at college, but you are all too aware of the fact that you are in a minority, possibly the only female student on your course. Now the pressure is on you *not* to confirm the negative stereotype attributed to your gender identity. This additional pressure leads to increased heart rate and stress symptoms, self-consciousness, anxiety, increased gender-awareness, and lower intellectual performance.

So by this time you can’t even talk to the guy at the garage about the product you want without tripping over your words, you end up buying the wrong thing, you forget your change, and go home feeling really bloody awful over what should have been a simple exchange. On top of this, you have just ended up making a fool of yourself to the garage dude, who has just seen you act out a pretty good show of being a silly girl and confirming whatever internal stereotype he already had. This, all because of a wiper blade.

It’s the people who care the most and have invested the most who have the most to lose by succumbing to stereotype threat. I know this because it has happened to me, lots of times, and now that I know this term, it’s easier to communicate the fear I have felt, and lack of faith in myself even when carrying out very simple tasks. I have written about how inspired I was when I was about 12 or 13 to become a music producer.

My heroes were Stock/Aitken/Waterman, and just like a football fan follows their team, I followed the charts for my ‘team’, and got really excited whenever they scored a number 1 for Kylie, Jason, Rick Astley, and the others. I started writing songs, a lot of them very silly of course at that age, and my cousin and I used to record them on a tape recorder, then later on an AMSTRAD Studio 100 multitrack. It never occurred to me at that time that there was anything wrong with what I was doing, and that it might be strange or incongruous for a girl to do this, I just enjoyed myself and learned by trial and error, finding what stuff worked and what didn’t.

The things I started to feel uncomfortable about was that when I visited music shops, to buy instruments or equipment with my dad, they always talked over me, and looked down on me, assuming that it was his hobby, not mine, despite the fact he knew nothing about music and had no interest in it. It did not occur to me that I was just being seen as a “little girl”.

Still, this didn’t really deter me, and I plugged on, graduating to using Cubase and sequencing my music on a computer, just like S/A/W did. It was not until I got a place on a music technology degree course, which should have been a ‘dream come true’ that I found things started to fall apart.

At home, I was 100% confident in my abilities. I knew my gear, knew what to do with it, and was pretty much self-taught. Sure, I had picked up some odd habits and ‘unusual’ ways of doing things, but I made great tunes and had even produced two albums of EDM and techno music I had composed myself. I had written scores of pop songs and was also learning to sing and play guitar and bass.

I’d moved onto prog rock music, and was inspired by the likes of Yes, Genesis and Rush by now, even tho I still held an affection for the trashy pop of my childhood. At university, I found things were different. I had been on a course before, but at the poly, there was less pressure, and the students came from a range of cultures (Asian, Pakistani and Indian) there was a more equal mix of male and female students, and most were from low-income homes. The university had very upper-class pretensions, students were 99% white, and in the case of the music tech course, they were all male. I felt I had ended up in the Old Boy’s Club.

What made matters worse was that the teacher who led this course, a toff himself, was disengaged from the students, preferring what he considered “student-led learning” rather than actual teaching, and thus allowed a core group of the male students to bed themselves in at the recording studio and treat it like their own private “pad”, very often just using it as a club-house and hogging it like the proverbial “dog in the manger”, preventing anyone else from using it for actual recording sessions. Feeling like I was an “intruder” and unwelcome, I tried to get most of my work done on my laptop in the halls of residence where I was staying, but this didn’t work for long, when I needed to record instruments for bigger projects, so I quit the music tech course and switched to the Music BA.

I left the music tech course with zero faith in my own abilities, where I was once happy as Larry plugging away on my computer coming up with banging tunes, I felt I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt there was something wrong with me, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I couldn’t even have a conversation about gear or techniques anymore, especially with guys, as I felt I was being judged all the time. I tried to talk to girls about it, but most of them were disinterested and just saw it as being a thing that men did, and had no interest in getting involved. At the time, I thought this was just because they were ‘stupid’, so I played into that stereotype myself; it did not occur to me that they may well have had the same experience that I did, and likewise decided to remove themselves from the situation, rather than face more of the embarrassment, shame, and anxiety which comes from ‘stereotype threat’.

On the Music BA, I chose to study opera, which put me at risk of another form of stereotype threat, in this case from my class. I was very aware of the trappings of classical music and opera and its elitism, but this felt more like something I could “fake” and was easier than the constant feeling of being seen as stupid and inferior or even “prey” due to my gender, which I felt in the studio. It was easy to go to the dress agency and buy designer togs second hand to attempt to fit in with the elite. I spent money I didn’t have to go to the opera, doing workshops and traveling to Italy chasing rainbows.

There is still the feeling that the mask will slip, and still the feeling that you have to mix with people who you don’t even like or agree with politically, but generally, I did very well at this and actually got my degree, albeit a 2:2 so job is done. As I have come to realize of late tho, is that opera was never my ambition and my “true love”, as I had no real aspirations to pursue it other than it being the “lesser of two evils”, and really, my true vocation was music technology and music production, which I allowed to wither on the vine because my fear of looking like a “stupid woman” crippled me from actually putting faith in my abilities and pursuing my goals.

Where I could have built a solid career as a studio engineer or a producer, I have sat back and watched whilst boys with less raw talent and skill than me have surpassed me to gain adulation, money, and status, and guess what?

I’m not OK with that.

A few years back I had another experience of “stereotype threat” which I can now clearly identify. Before I kitted myself out again with Logic X and a MOTU audio interface, I wanted to record a few songs I’d written at a local studio. This studio was run by two confident and enterprising guys nearly 10 years my junior, who had graduated from a similar Music Tech degree to the one I had been on.

My anxiety started as soon as I set foot in the studio. I was interested in what software they were using, it was ProTools which I have little experience of despite it being the “industry standard” but instead of asking questions that might have enlightened me, I bit my tongue for fear of looking dumb. I had no actual performance anxiety, and over a few sessions got the songs recorded, with no problems. It was when it came to the mixing it all went pear-shaped.

I would have loved to have mixed and mastered the tracks myself, but I let the guys do it and they were truly awful. However, instead of challenging them, I felt a real crisis of confidence and even doubted my own ears over it, thinking all the worst things possible, that it is me who’s at fault because of my defective femaleness; but in the end, decided to pay them and get the hell out if there. I played the mixes to an experienced male friend who is a producer for his opinion, and he confirmed that they were indeed horrid, so I got another male friend to retrieve the stems for me from the studio so my producer friend could remix them.

Even then, I had the problem of the stems being fragmented and in different formats, so piecing them together was like doing a jigsaw puzzle and more trouble than it was worth. All in all, this was an embarrassing, humiliating experience, where I felt completely unable to communicate my wishes to the studio, and would rather just pay the money and go away miserable with an end product which wasn’t fit for purpose, than to run the risk of further smearing my gender identity and reinforcing the stereotype of the incompetent female.

For a woman in music tech, it doesn’t matter how talented, creative, or clever you are, you will always carry the baggage of being judged just because of your gender. I know as a fact that a lot of female producers, DJ’s and studio engineers leave the profession simply because they feel alienated and pressurized by the males who dominate the industry, even if there is no foul play, no sexual innuendoes, and no threatening behavior on the part of these men. There doesn’t have to be.

Due to “stereotype threat” the women will still ‘self-sabotage’, downplay their skills, and remove themselves from the situation rather than risk reinforcing the negative stereotypes made about their gender being bad at tech, poor musicians, and nothing but eye-candy. I have destroyed my own career and limited my options due to this phenomenon, but at least in recognizing it, I can do something to combat it and understand this way of thinking.

In time, I hope that academia and the education system will also make adjustments to make everyone feel able to fulfill their potentials in both the academic and professional fields, regardless of race, class, and gender.

The story was previously published on The Good Men Project.

UK-based blogger. I’m an escapee from the Open Brethren, currently coming to terms with PTSD and being trans.

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