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The Effect Of Stereotype Threat On Women's Performance On The Fundamentals Of Engineering Exam

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2002 Annual Conference


Montreal, Canada

Publication Date

June 16, 2002

Start Date

June 16, 2002

End Date

June 19, 2002



Conference Session

Women in Engineering: New Research

Page Count


Page Numbers

7.1144.1 - 7.1144.7



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Paper Authors

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Steven Spencer

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Amy Bell

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Main Menu Session 2592

The Effect of Stereotype Threat on Women’s Performance on the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam

Amy E. Bell, Steven J. Spencer

Virginia Tech/University of Waterloo


Recent research has demonstrated that stereotype threat—the concern that others will view one stereotypically—interferes with women’s performance on standardized math exams. 1 In the current study we examine whether stereotype threat interferes with women’s performance on the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FEE). This exam is the first step in the process to become a licensed professional engineer. Sophomore and junior women and men engineering students completed one of two tests where the test questions were a subset of previous FEE questions. One test was comprised of primarily difficult questions while the other was made up of mostly easy questions. From a stereotype threat perspective, a student’s concern about being stereotyped by others should be highest when two factors are at play: (i) the student is performing poorly (e.g. the questions are difficult); and, (ii) a stereotype might be applied to the student (e.g. the stereotype that women are not good at math). Based on previous research, it is in this situation that differences between men’s and women’s performance should emerge. The data in this study are consistent with this perspective: gender differences were evident only on difficult engineering questions after the engineering area expertise factor was controlled (i.e. normalized).


Carl F. Gauss wrote the following in a letter to Sophie Germain: “A woman because of her sex and our prejudices encounters infinitely more obstacles than a man in familiarizing herself with complicated problems.” 2 Gauss’s observation was true during the Napoleonic era and it remains accurate today—especially in some fields, like engineering.

The percentage of women earning bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering in the U.S. reached 46% in 1995 (up from 38% in the mid-1980s). However, the percentages differ greatly by field. For instance, in 1995, women earned the following percentages of bachelor’s degrees by field: 73% psychology; 50% biological and agricultural sciences; 50% social sciences; 33% physical sciences; 33% earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; 33% mathematics; 33% computer science; and, 17% engineering3. The percentages of master’s and doctorate engineering degrees awarded to women in 1995 were 16% and 12%, respectively. 3

The U.S. engineering bachelor’s degree figures have steadily improved for women from 15.4% in 1990 to 18.6% in 1998.3,4 Unfortunately, this slow, steady increase is not necessarily

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Spencer, S., & Bell, A. (2002, June), The Effect Of Stereotype Threat On Women's Performance On The Fundamentals Of Engineering Exam Paper presented at 2002 Annual Conference, Montreal, Canada. 10.18260/1-2--11116

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