These people are always very well meaning, but I don't think what they’re doing is optimal.
Stereotype threat is a well-studied topic that talks about how the mere presence of a negative stereotype can cause anxiety and hinder performance. Priming or reminding someone of the stereotype makes it worse. Even a simple questionnaire regarding one's race and gender completed prior to writing a standardized test affects performance of stereotypically disadvantaged groups. Paraphrasing Cordelia Fine's reports on the many ways this priming happens in the context of gender (Delusions of Gender, pp. 7-8):
...if something reminds a woman of her gender while she is undertaking a task in which women are regarded as less capable, her own negative gender stereotypes might be activated.This is not to say that we shouldn't talk about the representation of women in certain fields -- just that a private conversation at a conference isn't the best setting. People go to conferences to learn and to network. It is not a good place to have a lowered confidence, or to subconsciously feel uncertain about one's abilities.
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