Stereotype Threat in Medical Education

Stereotype threat is a psychological phenomenon in which people feel at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their group, even if they don’t believe the stereotype to be true. For example, a woman might be confident in her math abilities and the math abilities of other women, but still be aware of the stereotype that women aren’t good at math. This feeling of anxiousness is then associated with lower performance.

An interesting study by Katherine Woolf and colleagues suggests that in medical education, students of Asian origin might experience a different kind of stereoype threat. While they are perceived as smart and studious, they are also seen as too quiet and not good at interacting with patients. Moreover, they are often seen as being forced into medicine by their parents, all of which can lead to stereotype threat among them. For example, one teacher notes “Students that are of South Asian or Indian origin, tend to be, or come across as being far more academically knowledgeable and they can justify what they’re doing and they’re very very bright, but actually putting that into practice and both with communication and practical skills doesn’t seem to gel that well”. The study further suggests that Asian medical students are aware of these negative stereoypes and that this does influence their behavior. The auhors illlustrate this with the example of one of the Asian students in their study: “she recalled hearing clinical teachers talking about the number of students from ethnic minorities at medical school and how she believed that teachers presumed that as an Asian student with medical parents she had been forced into medicine (the stereotype). She perceived they purposely made life harder for her, resulting in her feeling under psychological pressure (stereotype threat) and forced to prove that she was worthy of being at medical school. To prevent people making stereotypical assumptions about her she avoided telling people about herself.”

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The Importance of Role Models in Medical Education

Role models are important for a number of reasons. Not only can they teach us important skills, they can inspire us to reach for more ambitious goals or consider a new career path altogether as well. In medical education, they have also been linked to speciality choice, making them especially interesting with regards to the under-representation of women in surgery.

But what are medical students looking for in a role model? Who do they choose as that inspiration that might influence their career path so strongly? A study by Wright an colleagues suggests that it is not necessarily status or success, but that other attributes such as personality and competence might be more important. They also showed that role model choice was indeed related to speciality choice and that students generally chose their role model before they had made up their mind about their future speciality. This highlights, again, how important role models are for shaping our future. With regards to surgery, this may be somewhat problematic – only 63% of participants indicated that they had encountered a sufficient number of role models from that discipline (compared to an average of 87% in the other specialities). And – although the authors don’t report on it – this number is likely to be even lower for women who generally prefer female role models.

By the way, we have also discussed role models in surgery in particular before. Click here to read that post.