Virginia Valian came to Stony Brook University with a single question in mind — why so slow?
That is, why are the professional achievements of women occurring so terribly far behind those of men?
Valian, professor of psychology at Hunter College, director of the Gender Equality Project and the author of “Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women,” delivered the College of Arts and Sciences lecture Wednesday, Sept. 21 at the Wang Center.
In her talk, Valian explored the deeply rooted, yet subtle nature of the hindered position women hold in the workplace. She concluded that the concepts of gender schemas and the accumulation of advantage make up the foundation of women’s obstacles.
“Women make less money than men for comparable work,” Valian said. “Women are given less credit for their achievements than men are. This starts as early as 11 months old, when infant girls are seen by their parents as worse crawlers and less adventurous crawlers than infant boys.”
Gender schemas are cognitive constructs. One example is the perception that men appear independent and oriented to the task at hand, and therefore more fit for jobs that require focus, unemotional reasoning and ambition, Valian said, while these same schemas portray women as nurturing, communal and expressive of their feelings, making them more fit for jobs taking care of others.
Valian went on to explore the limitations to people’s cognitive processes that interact with gender schemas to intensify their effects. These limitations, mostly based in good intentions, include a person’s ability to evaluate other people and an overconfidence in their own ability. This can add to the effects of gender schemas, the belief that individuals are acting fairly when they may not be, and a tendency to not acknowledge laboratory findings that conflict with their beliefs.
“People go from endorsing the merit principle to believing that it is in operation, and that leaves them free to make the kinds of decisions that demonstrate the effects of gender schemas,” Valian said.
Alongside the notion of gender schemas, Valian explored the idea of advantage accumulation to explain the gender disparity in professions.
“The accumulation of advantage suggests that mountains are mole hills, piled one on top of the other over time,” Valian said. “Small imbalances in treatment add up to disadvantaged women.”
Valian used the example of a woman’s input going unheard in a meeting, while a male coworker repeats the woman’s point and gets the credit. This one minute event repeated would subtly compound over time, leaving the woman at a lower position than the man.
Valian went on to explain the importance of cues of encouragement and inclusion in influencing a woman’s participation or desire to pursue a career in a male-dominated field.
“I always liked physics, but never thought of pursuing it until I had a female physics teacher,” freshman physics major Rebecca Hassett said. “Being in WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) has also made me more comfortable.”
Of course, there are also exceptions to the imbalance between men and women. The problem, Valian said, is that some focus only on a few successful women, disregarding the main body of evidence that shows that women are not as professionally successful as men.
“Beliefs that men and women are on an equal footing make it more likely that an evaluator will judge a woman poorly,” Valian said.
Citing an experiment that studied a modern sexism scale, Valian said that the greater people endorsed statements such as “society has reached the point where women and men have equal opportunity for achievement,” the more they preferred a male candidate over an identical female for a job position.
Valian sees improvement for women in professions possible through remedies that include acknowledging the existence of this imbalance and making fair and mindful decisions to combat it.
Individuals can take action by educating oneself about schemas and standing up for female coworkers whose voices may go unheard. These can be done in both hiring and promotion decisions, as well as in everyday life to mitigate the gender disparity.
“Since schemas operate everywhere doing even a single good deed on a consistent basis can make a difference,” Valian said.