April 4, 2005

Prof. Speaks About Women in Academia

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Last Friday, Prof. Virginia Valian, psychology and linguistics, Hunter college, spoke at the James Law Auditorium of the veterinary school on the reasons behind women’s slow advancement in academic careers. Valian stated that there has indeed been progress in the battle for gender equality, noting that men and women do generally begin with the same starting salary, but in all professions women do not advance at the same speed as their male counterparts. Valian has been working to understand what the underlying principles are that allow this phenomenon to continue.

“Women tend to benefit less from their qualifications than men,” said Valian of the general tendency to overrate men and underrate women.

Valian explained many of the topics discussed in her book Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, including what she feels are the two main causes of the continuation of women’s stunted progress: gender schemas and accumulation of advantage.

Valian emphasized the fact that gender schemas are not simply stereotypes, but rather the way in which we modify our behavior from the information we receive visually. Valian identified these schemas as important components of our social fabric that give us cues on how to behave appropriately in certain situations.

She explained the idea of these schemas outside the realms of gender differences by pointing out that often we use the manner in which someone is dressed to gauge their importance and also to adjust the way in which we react to them. For example, an individual’s formal attire might indicate a status of importance, and we would adjust our behavior toward them accordingly, reacting more politely or respectfully than we might to someone in casual dress that we would not perceive to have the same importance.

In terms of gender, the schemas assigned to men and women are very different. Men are generally perceived as capable of independent action and efficiency. Women are generally seen as nurturing individuals that are very capable of expressing emotions. When translated into the workplace, the male schema lends itself more favorably towards advancement. These schemas are not merely a product of the male imagination; the way in which women see themselves plays into these preconceived generalizations.

Valian stressed the importance of the way in which women evaluate themselves, saying that women often do not see themselves as entitled to advancement as men are.

On the issue of accumulation of advantage, Valian made reference to the old adage, “don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” Women are often told in the workplace that it is not a big deal when they are not given credit for the small things. Valian disputed this way of thinking by pointing out how much the small things can add up over time.

She presented the audience with a study conducted in which a company’s promotion process was simulated, beginning with equal numbers of males and females.

A small bias of 1 percent against women was incorporated into the promotion process until there was complete turn-over within the company. The results showed 65 percent of the employees at the top were men while only 35 percent were women.

“Mountains are many molehills on top of each other.” said Valian. “A small bias, if encountered repeatedly and systematically, adds up.”

Valian made sure to emphasize that the data shows that there has been progress. She said that the large attendance at the lecture is progress in itself.

“I’m surprised at how many people are here.” said Alexa Yesukevich grad, on the large audience present.

“[Valian]’s good at conveying the information from her studies to people who aren’t familiar with this subject.” said Esther Quintero grad.

Valian ended her lecture by emphasizing that both men and women must be willing to overcome gender schemas. She encouraged both sexes to work together to make their voices heard when they become aware of gender inequality, especially at the undergraduate and graduate level.

“People will listen to you because they’ve invested in you.” said Valian.

Archived article by Keri Frank
Sun Contributor