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Stereotype Threat Workshop

30 March 2022

Last month, the Chemistry and BMB departments hosted an event called the “Stereotype Threat Workshop.” Chemistry graduate student Margaret Gerthoffer led the discussion along with a facilitating panel consisting of chemistry professors Jackie Bortiatynski and Danielle Hickey, and graduate students Nushrat Hoque (CHEM) and Dhwani Patel (BMB). Gerthoffer designed and organized a space to safely confront department-wide biases in the workshop. The event was sponsored by a SEED grant from Eberly College of Science. 

stereotype threat workshop
Chemistry graduate student Margaret Gerthoffer leads the workshop.

What is stereotype threat? It has been introduced as the internalized effects of social prejudices and is based on the work of psychologists Claude Steele, Ph.D., Joshua Aronson, Ph.D., and Steven Spencer, Ph.D.. While stereotypes are a generalized belief about a group of people, stereotype threat is the result of these beliefs in an individual. Stereotype threat has been linked to lower performance in multiple groups of academia, highlighting the importance of recognizing the stereotypes held both internally and externally. 

An example used in the workshop from Dr. Steele’s research showed women underperforming on math tests due to internalized gender-based stereotyping. This gave the audience a point of entry into the conversation. From there, a series of small group discussions reflected on the stereotypes that are applied to our own identities, and those we apply to others.  

Nushrat Hoque, of the Weinert Lab, said “from this conversation, we were able to compile a list of the stereotypes in our own departments and hypothesize how those preconceived notions may affect us as individuals and as a community. While I served as a facilitator in the smaller group discussions, I also had space to reflect on my own stereotype threat, and how it has affected my graduate school career.”  


A list of some stereotypes our department currently faces can be found below: 

  • The general department is extremely overworked and overloaded 

  • Research versus Teaching Faculty 

    • Teaching professors are not real scientists 
    • Becoming a teaching professor is “settling” and ruins the chance of a career 

  • Mothers versus Fathers 

    • Being a mother as a new faculty or postdoc can ruin career 

    • Graduate students are discouraged to start families, especially women 

    • Women having children should become teaching professors 

  • Undergraduate students have unrealistic expectations for grades, professors, and teaching assistants 

  • Graduate teaching assistants are dismissive towards student struggles and provide insufficient background knowledge 

  • Staff are limited in job settings and have little to no room for promotions or self-improvement 

  • Assumptions about appearance: Hair, skin color, nails, personal clothing choices as related to heritage, gender, and sexuality 

  • Research labs can have racial or gender-based identities, discouraging graduate students from joining 

  • Older faculty members lack flexibility and digital fluency 

  • International students tend to clump together 

  • English as a second language affects graduate teaching assistants and faculty on student reviews 

  • Outreach is not research and is a waste of time 


After drawing up a list of stereotype threats, the groups then came together to create a second list of action items that could help our departments learn to self-evaluate as well as to turn these threats into evolving strengths. See some of those action items below: 

  • Self-affirming phrases 

    • It is ok to be wrong

    • Nature telling you something 

    • Productivity does not equate to self-worth 

    • Learning is the purpose of being here 

    • Grades/GPA is not your self-worth 

  • Research group tensions easily arise when many people are driven to join one group; recognize these feelings and provide transparency 

  • Encourage a work/love balance for both new and existing faculty 

  • Encourage inter-collaboration between sub-disciplines and departments 

  • When students do poorly, remind them of transferrable or intercollaborative skills they may be bringing 

  • Create an open space for questions/feedback 

  • Emphasize that it is the faculty’s job to help and answer questions 

    • Women undergraduates tend to apologize profusely for asking questions and it is ok to overemphasize that your purpose is to teach 

  • Give positive feedback/encouragement; always include a positive comment when providing feedback/critique 


stereotype threat workshop (1)


When asked about her experience of being on the panel for this workshop, Danielle Hickey, assistant professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering, said “I am impressed to see students taking the initiative to create a welcoming environment for the discussion of vulnerabilities and how to turn them into strengths. The insightful discussions at this event highlighted the good work that is happening in the department to help its members foster community and succeed at its core missions of research and learning."