Why Women Can't Drive

Editor's Notebook, September 2000



T.W. Theodore

Last week I came across an article in the August 21st issue of The New Yorker. In The Art of Failure, Malcolm Gladwell talks about something he calls 'stereotype threat'. It's about people living down to expectations. I offer it as food for thought and discussion among all of us who've been told we can't perform a certain task well.


First, a couple of examples from the article. A group of Stanford University students was given a standardized test. When told that it was a baseline laboratory tool, the African-American and white students tested equally well. When told it was a test of intellectual ability, the African-American students tested significantly lower. (Stereotype: African-Americans aren't as smart as whites.)


White men can't jump!

A group of white students at Tufts University was tested in the athletic skill known as 'vertical leap'. When the instructor was white, the students jumped higher on each subsequent try. When the instructor was African-American, the height of the white students' jumps declined. When the instructor was a tall, very athletic-looking African-American, the performance of the white students took a nose dive. (Stereotype: White men can't jump.)


Women race car drivers go out on the track knowing that many folks believe that they won't do well. They go out eager to prove that the generally held assumption, the stereotype, is not accurate. (You, I hope, don't agree with this stereotype. Neither do I. But you'll have trouble, I think, denying that it exists.)


intent on not failing...

The New Yorker article suggests that, when faced with stereotype threat, people have a tendency to lose their fluidity and intuitive response to the situation. They become very careful, very intentional and thoughtful about their performance. They second-guess their split-second decisions. They are intent on not failing. To assure themselves that they will not fail, they revert to the mechanical style that served them well in the early stages of learning the skill, but that they have long since replaced with a more spontaneous style.

A race car driver responding to stereotype threat might think herself through a corner, lining up the turn-in point, remembering all she has learned about apexing, and considering the effectiveness of her braking and throttle application long after the track-out point has been passed. Being intent on not failing, on not living down to the stereotype, she loses the edge, the intuitive 'feel' of driving a race car at its limit through a corner.


no history and no future...

There is a joy to driving a race car well. There is a feeling of 'oneness' with the machine, with the track, with the other cars, with the sights, sounds, and smells of everything around you. There is a sense that you just 'know' how to get through the corner, when to pass, what the other guy is going to do. All the training and preparation are forgotten and the driver lives with no history and no future beyond what is being presented to her at this moment.

Responding to stereotype threat robs you of that joy.


Do women race car drivers respond to stereotype threat? My guess is that most do from time to time and that some do more frequently than others. I would be surprised if a driver could say that she has never given in to that threat.


no textbooks...

It has been said of Juan Montoya that he drives into a corner and then deals with whatever he finds. He lives in the moment and drives in a style that is intuitive rather than mechanical. I've never flat out won an automobile race, but I know that winning race car drivers don't drive with text books in front of them, thinking about weight transfer and threshold braking.


I don't know if you've ever felt yourself responding to stereotype threat, taking a test, jumping, or driving a race car.  I don't know how you'd prepare yourself to put that threat out of mind and proceed with the fluidity and confidence gained through training and experience. I imagine that each of us does it in our own fashion.


If I had a piece of advice to drivers who recognize stereotype threat as a possibility, it would be expressed in the words of that immortal tee-shirt, "Just drive it like you stole it."

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