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Updated 11:30 AM October 27, 2003



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ADVANCE Speaker Series
Perceptions about gender equality don't always translate into reality

Most women and men hold egalitarian beliefs, but that does not guarantee impartial evaluation and treatment of others, said a speaker who studies gender issues.

Virginia Valian (Photo by Toyoko Orimoto)

In fact, experimental data demonstrate that we do not view other people simply as people; we see them as males and females, said Virginia Valian, who spoke at the University Oct. 17. Once gender schemas are invoked, they work to the disadvantage of women, resulting in men being overrated and women underrated, she said.

Valian, a professor of psychology and principal investigator of the Gender Equity Project at Hunter College (New York), discussed her book, "Why So Slow: The Advancement of Women," as part of the ADVANCE Speaker Series.

The 1998 book uses concepts and data from psychology, sociology, economics and biology to explain the disparity in the professional advancement of men and women.

Women occupy few positions of power and prestige in professions and academia, in part because gender schemas skew society's perceptions and evaluations of men and women, Valian said. Gender schemas affect everyone's judgment of people's competence, ability and worth, she said.

One of the studies Valian reviewed involved an experiment that exploited the fact that men are, on average, taller than women. In the early 1990s, college students saw photos of other students and estimated their height. Valian said unbeknownst to the students who did the estimating, for every photograph of a male student of a given height there was a female student of the same height. They judged the women as shorter than they really were, and men as taller. Not even an objective characteristic such as height is immune from gender schemas, she said.

Such ideas, she said, can form as early as age 3. Children can determine which jobs often are done by a particular gender even if they've never seen the job performed by a family member. Thus, even if they've never seen their parents use a hammer, children are more likely to associate a picture of the tool with men. They learn the gender differences from television and movies, or interactions with peers, Valian said.

"We make sure they know the world isn't flat, but not issues gender-related," she said.

What can be done? Valian said leaders and appointment committees should be held accountable for ensuring that women are advanced to top positions when they deserve promotion.

In addition, people can nominate women for awards, prizes and membership on important committees, she said. A credible authority figure can legitimize women's work and can play an important role in helping them become leaders, she said.

"We are influenced by what others say," Valian said. "At all levels, we can create leaders."

Still, women can do everything "right" and fail, she said. A woman can help herself by understanding and changing flaws in the professional structure, she said. Valian said women can build power by performing jobs that are out of the ordinary, visible and relevant to current institutional problems.

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