Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

Gender bias in leadership: Building an “identity safe environment” to combat stereotype threat

“Stereotype threat” is the fear that an individual‘s performance will justify a negative stereotype of whatever group with which the individual identifies; this fear then affects performance in a direction that supports the stereotype (Spencer et al, 1999).

One common stereotype is that women make poor leaders. This results in a gender bias in leadership positions – including in academic medicine (Wayne et al, 2010; Burgess et al., 2012). Importantly, there is no factual support for this stereotype. On the contrary, Eagly and co-workers (2003) showed that women actually have the potential to be more effective leaders for organizational change, as they demonstrate a more “transformational” style of leadership than men do.

Creating an “identity-safe environment” is an important tool that can eliminate stereotype threat. These can be startlingly simple instructions aimed at providing stereotyped-threated individuals with an unbiased and supportive environment, while assuring them that their skills are important and valued (Davies et al, 2005).

My interest in stereotype threat and its impact on performance was awakened as a result of my teaching first-year medical students at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Since 1994, I have been meeting with small groups of students at the end of a course to review the complexities of reproductive physiology. Students are broken up into six sessions of five groups of 5-6 students/group. They are pre-assigned five problem sets to review, then on the day of the session each group is given one of the problems to discuss among themselves for 15 min. At the end of the small group discussion, one volunteer is asked to be a group leader and guide the discussion.

This has been a very effective way for students to learn from each other, with my role being to correct misconceptions and answer questions. However, being a group leader is often stressful for the students – and many are reluctant to take this role. In 2007, after the end of the six sessions, a male student asked me if I noticed that all of the group leaders in his session were male and if that was typical?

I was dumbfounded. It was right in front of me and I didn’t notice. Had this been going on for 13 years and I had never seen it, or was it an anomaly? The following year I decided to take notes on the gender of the group leaders. About 50% of the class was made up of women – and had been that way for more than two decades. But, only 33% of the group leaders were women. This was especially horrifying to me and my female teaching partner because we had thought that by being leaders in education in the School of Medicine, we were giving off hefty leadership vibes that would be readily absorbed by our female students. Clearly, this was not the case!

It appeared that many of our smart, dedicated, hardworking female medical students were suffering from stereotype threat that women make poor leaders. The following year, the class was semi-randomly assigned to one of two instruction groups for the reproductive physiology review sessions: half the class received the typical instructions (Control group); the other half of the class received the control instructions plus this brief pep talk on the importance of being a leader (Intervention group):

“If you’ve never volunteered to be a group leader in other situations, this is a safe environment to try it out. It doesn’t matter what your background is, what your major was as an undergraduate student, whether you’re male or female— being a group leader is an important experience for everyone.”

Once again, we saw that disproportionately fewer group leaders were women in the Control group (27%, whereas half the class was women). But, the intervention instruction was successful in setting up an identity safe environment and eliminated gender bias in small group leadership with 47% of group leaders in the Intervention group being women (not significantly different than numbers of male leaders); see Figure 1.

Fig1 Gender Bias_Ctrl vs Intervention

Interviews with students after the study revealed that most did not even remember which instruction they received – control or intervention – underscoring that words and phrasing carry subtle messages that can have pronounced impact on our behaviors (Wayne et al, 2010).

As of 2014, women made up over 40% of U.S. medical school Assistant Professors in the basic sciences and clinical departments – and this is close to gender parity at the beginning stages of an academic career. But, women’s movement up the ranks diminishes with each step, such that just over 20% are at the Full Professor level. And only16% are at the top leadership position in the medical school as Dean (Bautenberger et al, 2015); see Figure 2.

Fig2 Women US Med Sch 2014

Burgess and co-workers (2012) have suggested the following measures to reduce stereotype threat in academic health centers, a factor that surely contributes to diminishing representation of women in senior and leadership ranks. Importantly, these steps can be applied to any business or institution.

(1) Describing stereotype threat and its negative impact on your community.

(2) Engaging all stakeholders, male and female, to promote identity safety through awareness training.

(3) Increasing exposure of employees at your business or institution to successful female leaders.

(4) Reducing gender stereotype priming by avoiding stereotypically male criteria for promotion and awards.

(5) Building leadership efficacy among female employees.

As of 2013, women make up over half of the U.S. workforce (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), so we are potentially disenfranchising half of our population, women who have the potential to make significant contributions and provide important leadership across all professions. How we instruct students and employees can strongly influence whether we reinforce or eliminate gender bias in school and the workplace. As I found out, even a minimal targeted intervention can help reduce the gender gap that limits women’s careers.


Bautenberger D, Raezer C, Bunton SA (2015) The underrepresentation of women in leadership positions at U.S. medical schools. Analysis In Brief, AAMC 15(2). https://www.aamc.org/data/aib/425010/february2015.html

Burgess et al (2012) Does stereotype threat affect women in academic medicine? Academic Medicine 87(4):506-12. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3315611/

Davies et al (2005) Clearing the air: identity safety moderates the effects of stereotype threat on women’s leadership aspirations. J Pers Soc Psychol. 88: 276–287. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/88/2/276/

Eagly et al (2003) Transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership styles: A meta- analysis comparing women and men. Psychol Bull. 129:569 –591. http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/0033-2909.129.4.569

Spencer et al (1999) Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35: 4–28. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103198913737

U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014) Women in the Labor Force: A Databook. http://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/cps/women-in-the-labor-force-a-databook-2014.pdf

Wayne et al (2010) Gender differences in leadership amongst first-year medical students in the small-group setting. Academic Medicine 85(8): 1276-81. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3315611


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