On Sunday, 33-year-old Leonor Carniero finished first in Edinburgh’s inaugural Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon, beating the first man across the finish line by nine seconds with a time of one hour, sixteen minutes and five seconds (1.16.05).

Whoa.

Just because I know we don’t all do mental math like McKinsey consultants, I’ll tell you, that’s an average of five minutes and forty-eight seconds per mile (5.48 pace). Think back to when you ran the mile in elementary school. Or pay some attention to Emory’s track team. Breaking a six-minute mile pace is pretty fast for just one mile. Carniero did that 13.1 times. So, she’s fast. That’s cool.

The half marathon world record for women is 1.05.50 (5 minutes/mile). For men, it’s 58.23 (about 4.27 minutes/mile).

Generally speaking, men run faster than women, right? Men are stronger than women. Women and men are different, biologically speaking, and not only in visible ways. Maybe men are even better at math and science. We’ve all heard that, haven’t we?

Sure we have. Although it’s scientifically refuted.

According to Janet Hyde, psychologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – interviewed by Science Daily in 2010 – the “idea that both genders have equal math abilities is widely accepted among social scientists…but word has been slow to reach teachers and parents.”

Maybe you’re wondering where I’m going with this. Here’s my argument: most of the time, it shouldn’t matter what biological/psychological/physical differences exist between women and men.

Sex and gender stereotypes are harmful to everyone. They are essentially limiting and presumptive, albeit sometimes informative. We know the adage “stereotypes exist for a reason.” But their occasionally revealing nature should not function as an excuse to make assumptions about individuals.

Research is important. Being human is intriguing in and of itself – and we need to know how our brains and bodies work. And patterns are exciting; when scientists discover something that can be replicated across people and generations, it’s thrilling because it means we understand ourselves better. Of course, interpreting results is complicated, and the significance of the fact that there are fewer women in tenure-track positions within fields like physics, electrical engineering and chemistry could mean many things. Unfortunately, results from painstaking study by social scientists are all too often simplified in misleading ways.

The problem is that when girls, or racial minorities, or children with particular disabilities like autism or dyslexia, are told too early or too simply that people like them don’t do well reading at high levels or doing calculus or leading companies, they internalize it. In the world of standardized tests, this phenomenon has been documented enough to acquire an apt name: stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat is a psychological effect first studied by Claude Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford, in the early 1990s. As Jonah Lehrer describes it on the science blog The Frontal Cortex, Steele measured disparities in test scores between black and white students who took two tests, one that he stressed to students “was not a measure of intelligence,” and the other, in which students were specifically told the test would measure their intelligence, thereby providing a reminder of the “ugly and untrue stereotype that blacks are less intelligent than whites.” In the first case, scores were nearly identical regardless of race. In the second, the achievement gap appeared and black students performed worse than their white counterparts.

The same effect was noted with women asked to take a math test and with white males who were, as Lehrer writes, “exposed to a stereotype about the academic superiority of Asians.” The stunning thing about this is that it doesn’t really matter what we believe; if society has told us time and again that we’re not as good as someone else, it distracts us from performing as well as we otherwise might.

I don’t know whether Steele’s work on the stereotype threat could be applied to athletics. I would guess that the fact women are constantly expected to be physically weaker than men has some significance. From personal experience, I can say that while running a half marathon, I don’t try to beat the man in front of me for that last 100 meter sprint, but I will run other women into the ground – because I know (or think) I can.

Even though it shouldn’t, identity often becomes an inhibiting factor in the quest for success.

Sometimes we need a few upstart individuals to demonstrate just how little it needs to matter what we look like, if we’re willing to work hard. I have Carniero to thank for reminding me; beating the guy in front of me is just as important as beating the girl.

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