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  • Ghosts in the OfficeThe Ecclesiological and Soteriological Implications of Stereotype Threat among Women in Catholic Theology
  • Jessica Coblentz (bio)

Sometimes, I imagine feminist scholar Mary Daly as a banshee who haunts the halls of the Boston College (BC) theology department where I study. Her groans echo in the classrooms where I took my first doctoral seminars; during my first semester of doctoral studies, I was the only woman in half of my systematics classes. She hovers in the corners of offices where well-meaning professors warned me that my interest in gender and sexuality could ostracize me on the job market. Yet Daly’s ghost is not only a companion to me as I bemoan the realities of women in Catholic theology today but also a hopeful reminder of the improved status of women in the field. When Daly first taught at BC, she was one of the few women in Catholic theology. Those of her generation and the women who immediately followed rarely had female role models in the profession. Today, I have many female mentors. Professional female Catholic theologians exist, and they excel. Women hold chairs in Catholic theology at our top universities. They run our prestigious academic journals. They serve as presidents of our national and international theological societies. I am reminded of this on the many occasions when mentors tell me how good I have it. The profession is “so much better” for me than it was for them.

There are certainly many ways that Catholic theology is easier for me—a thirty-year-old laywoman—than it was for women in previous generations. Yet all this casual talk of women’s progress in Catholic theology elides the challenges that my generation still faces. We continue to traverse a number of gendered obstacles in the field today, often while being told (implicitly, of course) that these problems are negligible. In an effort to promote greater intergenerational understanding and a more accurate account of the experiences of young women in Catholic theology today, I take a close look at one of the underacknowledged [End Page 127] and especially elusive problems that still faces us. This problem, known as stereotype threat, is not unique to the younger generations of women in Catholic theology, but it is pernicious and ubiquitous among us. It is an ongoing manifestation of patriarchy that rouses Daly’s ghost.

The Stereotypes That Haunt Us

“Stereotype threat” occurs when people’s anticipation of stereotyping consciously or unconsciously hinders their actual participation in society. Social psychologist Claude Steele made stereotype threat famous with his 2010 book, Whistling Vivaldi, where he laid out years of social-scientific evidence for the “ghost” that haunts each and every one of us as we move through everyday life.1 The ghost is menacing and shifts according to one’s context and social identity. For a white male participating in a high-pressure sport like professional basketball, the ghost that hovers over his head is the widely held stereotype that white men are inferior in athletic ability to their black teammates and opponents. Evidence shows that this stereotype has real effects on that white male’s experience of the world, often inhibiting his athletic performance regardless of the actual abilities of those around him. Because the white man is in a situation where a stereotype could apply to him, he knows that one false move could cause him to be reduced to that caricature, to be seen and treated in terms of it. A white man may experience this form of stereotype threat on the court, but he won’t experience it as he moves into another setting, such as the classroom, where his athletic ability is irrelevant and the associations that accompany his social identity are confidence and competence. Each setting renders a specific group or groups vulnerable to stereotype threat.2

Steele, now dean of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, has a particular interest in how stereotype threat functions in academic settings. His earliest research on the subject observed how women underperform on math tests solely because of the widely held belief that they are inferior to men in mathematics. Steele and his colleagues didn’t...