Throwing (and Thinking) Like a Girl


Throwing like a girl is a serious matter. Empirical evidence shows that men significantly outperform women when it comes to throwing velocity and speed (by 2.18 and 1.98 standard deviations, respectively). You can probably easily recognize the signs of a "girly" throw. Its perpetrator faces the target, rather than rotating her hips and shoulders to be perpendicular to the target. She may step forward with the wrong foot (the foot on the same side as her throwing hand), or just use her forearm rather than her back and shoulders.

And what about thinking like a girl? There's lots of evidence suggesting that's not a compliment either. When looking at school-age children, studies have consistently found that more boys than girls fall in the the top percentiles of standardized test scores such as AP Calculus, the math section of the SAT, or the quantitative part of the GRE. Over the past 20 years, there have consistently been double the number of boys than girls scoring in the top 5% of high school math assessments.

At first glance, throwing and thinking are not similar. Thinking is deliberate and calculated, throwing seems instinctual and raw. "I don't really think about the process,'' a baseball-player friend of mine once shrugged, when I demanded to know how he managed to throw the ball so fast and accurately. "I just decide where to throw, and my body just does the rest.''

Let's dig a little deeper, though.

Women who play fast-pitch softball throw the ball at speeds up to 77 miles per hour, much faster than most male spectators. Female tennis pros serve harder, faster, and with better form than the vast majority of male amateurs. Most orthopedists, anatomists, or female-athlete coaches will readily tell you that there is no structural reason why men should throw better than women.

Girls are actually pretty good at thinking, too. Elizabeth Spelke, a psychology professor at Harvard, observed that spatial, quantitative and numerical skills in children under 7 did not differ across genders. At MIT, graduating females have statistically higher grade point averages (GPAs) than their male counterparts (controlling for major), are equally as likely to earn awards or publish papers, and graduate at higher rates.

If both men and women are born with similar abilities, and both have the potential to excel to equal heights, why does the average girl throw... well, "like a girl''? Why are only 26% of 'computer and mathematical occupations' and 12% of 'engineers' in the US women? And why do these percentages drop drastically and disproportionately when looking at the top positions in these industries?

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“Imagine yourself as a typical man: you're self-confident and tough-minded; you drive a nice motorbike and work in an executive position. Sometimes, you reprimand your assistant. You take risks and do weight training after work.”

This was the gist of a narrative told to participants of both genders in a study run by Professors Ortner and Sieverding at Heidelberg University in 2008. This was referred to as a "gender-stereotype activating-task." Participants then underwent a mental rotation test. In a mental rotation test, the test-taker is shown a target cube with different patterns on its sides, and several trial cubes which may or may not be accurate rotations of the target; the task is to identify which one(s) match the target. Here's an example:

Mental rotation tasks are thought to measure your brain's capability to recognize objects, reason spatially, problem solve, and generally be intelligent. Men historically outperform women on this test, affirming the common belief that they might just be better at solving hard problems.

In Ortner and Sieverding's study, participants performed this same test, except they were first either primed with the male-stereotype activating-task like the one described above, or a similar female-stereotype activating-task. Here are the results:

Let's look at the column that denotes the mean score (M). While women who are primed female perform worse than men, women who are primed male perform virtually the same as men who are primed male. And men who are primed female actually perform worse.

Yup, that's right. Tell a woman to think about being a stereotypical man, and she performs just as well as a man. Remind her of female stereotypes, and her score rapidly drops.

A couple years later, Professors Hively and El-Alayli did a very similar study at Eastern Washington University -- except it involved throwing balls. Female and male tennis and basketball college athletes performed two athletic tasks within their sport. Beforehand, participants were either told that there was an expected gender difference or that there was no gender difference in performance on the tasks.

When participants were told that their gender would affect their performance, women performed worse. When they were told that it would not, women and men performed the same.

Throwing and thinking might be two very different activities, but something remarkably similar is going on with them both. They are both overrun with gendered stereotypes. And as the described studies show, stereotypes are far from harmless.

The problem is not just that reminding a girl about her gender worsens performance, but that every time this happens it contributes to a systematic gender divide.

Let's take the example of women in STEM: The fact that negative stereotypes cause a girl to perform worse on a STEM-related test reaffirms her belief that she is inferior. This lack of confidence can lead to girls participating less in STEM competitions or extracurriculars, being less willing to discuss STEM subjects or participate in class, or underperforming on tests and assessments. It also affects the way they are treated by those around them, such as teachers who assume the girls in the class will be worse at math, or peers who assign girls the non-technical work in group projects.

It's a domino effect: persistent stereotypes make women perform worse, and women performing worse strengthens stereotypes. In the end, far fewer women pursue STEM fields in college or afterwards. For those who do go into tech jobs, 56% leave the industry within 10 years, more than double the dropout rate for men.

This vicious cycle is known as stereotype threat. Since the term was coined in 1995, studies have shown that it can lead to a stereotyped person feeling like an outsider or choosing not to pursue a particular domain, as well as exacerbating social and educational inequality.

Of course, if we were to pick any woman off the street, get rid of all the stereotypes in her head, and then ask her to pitch a baseball, it would probably not be MLB material, or even close. For anyone, learning to throw well requires years of practice. Greg Downey studied elite Brazilian athletes who had little to no overhand throwing experience, making the case that all bodies without overhand throwing experience make the same clumsy mistakes we recognize to be "throwing like a girl". The problem that arises is that when a young girl who first starts throwing a ball does this, the negative gender stereotype associated with "throwing like a girl" is a huge disincentive to continue doing it. Meanwhile, similarly-aged boys continue throwing, more and more so as they get better at it. Stereotypes are reaffirmed.

Am I just repeatedly reminding everyone about all these stereotypes? Well, yes. But the reason to bring this up at all is the hope that by knowing about it we can all do a little bit to not let it affect us, our friends, or future generations.

Here's a fact: I'm a girl. And I am negatively affected by stereotype threat.

We are capable of conscientiously identifying negative stereotypes and minimizing their influence. Moving demographic questions to the end of a test could lead to an additional 4,700 female students annually receiving AP Calculus credit. Thinking about ourselves as valued, unique and multi-faceted can reduce our vulnerability to stereotype threat. Attributing a task's difficulty to external, temporary causes or flat-out telling students that their test anxiety might be due to "negative stereotypes that are widely known in society and have nothing to do with your actual ability to do well on the test" also eliminates gender differences in performance. The ways that stereotype threat has been eliminated in laboratories is almost endless. All that's left is to turn the results of study after study into a reality.

Want to think bigger? We know how we can attempt to mitigate the effects of negative stereotypes as we sit down to take a test, or play a game of catch. But what about preventing the stereotypes from existing in the first place?

The big problem is that the people at the top are mostly men. And the people at the top are the ones who build and shape the infrastructures and laws of an industry.

Let's go back to the example about women in STEM fields to see how this might play out. The men at the top are largely unaware of problems experienced by women (for example: the "glass ceiling", workplace discrimination and harassment, lack of mentorship, implicit biases, the wage gap), simply because they have not had to personally deal with these problems. When they look around, they might observe that the vast majority of other high-level people are also men, and subconsciously internalize the idea that women are less qualified, less interested or less predisposed to succeed in their field. Ideally, these opinions would be unimportant, and we would dismiss them. But remember that the people in question are the CEOs, the executive boards, the Fortune 500s, the venture capitalists. They are in charge of the promotions, funding, and opportunities. They are the ones creating interview processes, determining compensation, and providing mentorship. Fewer women may be hired, chosen for promotions, given funding, or invited to networking events. Slowly, it might start to become true that women are less successful in these fields due to fewer opportunities being available to them, and a reinforcing stereotype begins.

Ultimately, the distorted view at the top of a male-dominated industry gets propagated downwards. The solution, then, is clear as day: get more women and other stereotyped minorities at the top. People who understand and have experienced stereotypes and the issues they cause can make it easier for others to overcome these problems -- for example, by instituting programs that make it easier for women to get mentorship, or fostering a workplace culture that is welcoming to all groups. When people look at the industry's leadership, they will be able to internalize a diverse group of successful people. People might just become more open-minded. And stereotypes just may begin to disappear.

Unfortunately, we aren't starting from a blank slate. We've driven ourselves into a highly unbalanced state, and in order to get out of it, we need to be proactive. To work towards a level of leadership diversity in the STEM industry, programs could be instituted to introduce girls to STEM fields and encourage them to continue forward in these areas, hiring process could be actively changed to be less discriminatory towards women, additional mentorship could be organized to guide women through a field where they have a vanishingly small number of female role models, and affirmative action programs could be put into place in both universities and company recruiting.

These are big hopes, and they are achieved with small steps. We can all do our part, whether or not we’re baseball coaches or Silicon Valley executives. Simply knowing about the existence of stereotype threat leads to women performing better on tests. Being aware of stereotype threat comes with the unfortunate and upsetting reality that it is indeed a problem, and that we are no longer living in “blissful” ignorance. But as a society of talented, capable, and thoughtful individuals, I hope and believe that by acknowledging the problems we face, we become empowered to fix them.