This post is written by Shan Chong, a molecular biologist with an interest in mental health and behaviour. Shan is a postdoctural research fellow that uses stem cells to model neuropsychiatric disease. She spends a lot of time thinking about how people perceive and respond to things, and how science can help to combat the stigma around mental illnesses. Shan is also a science writer and communications lead for Biotech Connection Singapore, where she writes and edits an article series on bio-entrepreneurship. You can find out more about Shan and her work on Twitter.
One of my favourite moments in Fresh off the Boat, a sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family living in Florida, is when the lead character unveils her life plans for her sons. “Here is your plan”, she says proudly to her youngest son (who is still in elementary school), as the camera pans over the words ‘Doctor-President’ and a hastily constructed collage of him wearing a suit and a stethoscope. This scene not only speaks to anyone who has been unwittingly saddled with parental expectations of becoming a doctor or lawyer (why not both?), but also reflects a popular stereotype of Asian parenting – an overbearing ‘tiger mom’ who is obsessed with their child’s academic success.
As someone of Asian descent, I’m no stranger to stereotypes like these. ‘Good at math’, ‘hard-working’, and ‘rule-following’ are just some of the phrases that are often associated with people who look like me. Since these are objectively positive qualities, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that such stereotypes do little harm and could even be used to one’s advantage. After all, unconscious bias works both ways, right?
In fact, positive stereotypes can be just as damaging as negative ones. They can lead to certain expectations for specific groups of people, and alienate people who don’t live up to those expectations. For instance, the notion that women are more caring and sociable than men often leads to women being more likely to take on roles as social organisers in the workplace, arranging after-work socials and sourcing birthday cakes, with little additional compensation. On the flip side, a study conducted in 2005 found that declining to help a coworker resulted in a larger negative impact for women than for men.
Attributing positive qualities to someone’s race or gender can also make them feel like they’re being seen as just another member of an outgroup rather than a unique individual in their own right. Ironically, this can be perpetuated by individuals from the same group. “Don’t worry,” my friends used to say to reassure me before an exam, “we’re Asian, right? The bell-curve is in our favour.” (Just to be clear – it wasn’t.) There are also plenty of studies showing that positive stereotypes are usually perceived negatively by the person they are applied to, due to the associations they come along with – for example, the idea that a hard-working person might also have no social life.
But what has all this got to do with science? Personally, I only discovered the damaging effects of positive stereotypes when I started my PhD. It felt like everyone expected me to be extra hard-working and smart. The truth was that I was neither. The already unhealthy culture of overwork expected of PhD students and the fact that I was surrounded by truly brilliant minds in the lab only made me feel like an imposter on two levels: both as a scientist, and as an Asian person. I felt like a failure to my race and constantly apologised for not being a ‘typical’ Asian person. Thankfully, I had a supportive supervisor who noticed that I seemed to be under a lot of pressure. After listening to what was on my mind, he asked, “just who is giving you these expectations?”
That’s when I realised that being constantly exposed to positive stereotypes about Asian culture had led me to hold myself to unrealistically high expectations. Talking to other people in my PhD group, especially those of Asian heritage who had grown up in Europe or America, helped broaden my view about self-identity and taught me to be kinder to myself. “Whether you’re smart or not doesn’t change the fact that you’re Asian,” said one of them matter-of-factly, “your experience should inform the stereotype, not the other way around.”
Positive stereotypes are still stereotypes, and can have negative impacts – to greater or lesser extents – on whoever is at the receiving end of them. Working in diverse environments enables us to challenge assumptions and is crucial to combating stereotypes. It also allows us to discover everyday challenges or biases others face that we ourselves don’t. For instance, working with a colleague who was colour-blind has made me more mindful of the colour schemes I use in presentations and papers. I learnt to use shapes rather than colours where possible, and to meticulously label elements in a plot even if they were colour-coded, so that he wouldn’t have to waste time wondering if he’d differentiated the colours correctly.
As scientists, we are truly fortunate to be able to work with people from a range of various backgrounds, and we must strive to ensure that our working environments are not only diverse, but inclusive too.