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Valian cites gender schemas as one culprit in women's slower career advancement

Vigrinia Valian
Vigrinia Valian

Virginia Valian, author of "Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women," got down to causes and conditions behind the salary and status gaps between men and women across professional groups in a talk at MIT on April 5.

Valian is a professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York who speaks widely on aspects of women's career advancement, particularly in academia.

Thomas Magnanti, dean of the school of engineering, introduced Valian to the group in the Grier Room.

According to Valian, two key concepts--gender schemas and the accumulation of advantage--and a world of telling details make sense of a "bewildering difference" between men's and women's career trajectories.

Gender schemas are expectations or ideas, more neutral than stereotypes, that permeate a culture and are carried by both men and women. They are "hypotheses we use to interpret social events and to make sense of the social world," Valian said. "The effect of schemas in professional life is to cause us to slightly, systematically overrate men and underrate women," she said.

Experimental data show, for example, that schema of success match with "male characteristics, such as 'independent,' 'task-oriented,' and 'doing things for a reason.' Female characteristics, such as 'communal' and 'nurturing,'" do not, Valian said.

She pointed out how extensive travel or knowledge of a foreign language can be differently valued, thanks to gender schema, in international businesses.

"Women are perceived to learn French for the sake of learning a language, and men, for the sake of their career. A woman who spends a year abroad is considered, according to these schema, as having wasted a year, and a man, as having invested a year," Valian said. She went on to cite numerous examples of how the same qualifications are differently valued and applied, thanks to gender schema held by both men and women. The net effect, Valian noted, is bias against women.

The second key concept Valian developed, accumulation of advantage, is analogous to accumulation of interest in a savings account, only the capital that accrues is promotions, access, mentoring and salary.

"Mountains are made of molehills piled on top of one another. We're looking at small, systematic differences--advantages and disadvantages--that add up over time. Men and women may start work at the same salary, but, thanks to accumulation of advantage, more men end up in leadership positions," Valian said.

"One could be very depressed about gender schemas and unequal accumulation of advantage, but we can do something about it. Where there's an intelligent will, there's a way," said Valian. Her suggestions included actions for leaders, for colleagues of either sex and for institutions.

MIT recently completed its school-by-school report on the status of women faculty at the Institute. The report on the School of Science was published in 1999. The new reports on the schools of architecture and planning; engineering; humanities, arts and social sciences; and the Sloan School of Management were presented to the faculty March 18.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 24, 2002.

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