The term “stereotype threat” is used to describe how negative stereotypes cause members of a stereotyped group to underperform. A recent study examined whether stereotype threat is affected by using fake names:
Shen Zhang and her team tested 110 women and 72 men (all were undergrads) on 30 multiple-choice maths questions. To ramp up the stereotype threat, the participants were told that men usually outperform women on maths performance. Crucially, some of the participants completed the test after writing their own name at the top of the test paper, whereas the others completed the test under one of four aliases (Jacob Tyler, Scott Lyons, Jessica Peterson, or Kaitlyn Woods). For the latter group, the alias was pre-printed on the first test page, and the participants wrote it on the top of the remainder.
Overall, men outperformed women on the maths task. But women who took the test under someone else’s name, be it male or female, performed better than women who performed under their own name, and they did just as well as the men. The effect was stronger for women who cared more about maths.
By separating their performance from their own identity, it seems the women performing under an alias no longer felt pressure to avoid being seen as an example of the harmful gender stereotype. Further analysis showed this had to do with feeling less distracted during the task and with experiencing less self-reputational threat. In contrast, male performance was unaffected by using another person’s name.