Lecture summary: Gender and Excellence
Why so slow? The Advancement of Women
Prof. Virginia Valian, 25th March 2010
Women are absent at the most prominent levels of science, medicine, business, law and academia worldwide. Women are thinly represented among full professors at major research universities. Why?
Some of the most common explanations are:
-Sexism. This is not really a good explanation, because a university considers itself as a meritocracy where quality counts most of all. A second explanation that we cannot point to sexism is the following: it is shown that men and women in the position of superiors act in the same way when selecting candidates and choosing between male or female candidates. In general it is not the case that women are more women-friendly.
-There are not enough women. This is not a good reason anymore because now there are more female graduates than male. What happens is that the pipeline leaks more females than males.
-Motherhood causes females to stop the academic career. But even if we take out this factor, by comparing careers of unmarried women with careers of men, we see that women progress more slowly then men. Another investigation pointed out that the productivity of academic mothers increases with every child (till the number of four) they have.
-Women choose to stay home. It is not a free choice if you see it happening only within a certain group of women, it is a choice based on arrangements in a certain society.
-Women are not acculturated to our working system, so we should teach them to understand the system. Here we notice that people concentrate on the few women who made it, indicating that it is possible for women to learn how to make it in this system. But decennia of training for only the women did not fix this problem, so as a solution it is not enough. It is not the training that will make the difference for women, it is our unconscious perception that is playing a major role.
Since these common explanations do not provide a satisfactory answer to the underrepresentation of women in academia, Prof. Valian studied in detail the mechanisms at work which work in each of us, in how we perceive the world around us. Specifically, she referred to schemas, and in the case of gender, they are called gender schemas. Schemas, in general, are non-conscious opinions we have about groups. Schemas are essential for survival because they help us to understand the world by recognizing a pattern, and help us to make quick decisions how to act. For example, when we walk in Amsterdam and look at people we use schemas to define their nationality: Dutch are blond and tall, Chinese are small etc. Obviously, counter examples do not change our schemas easily. The disadvantages of using these schemas is that we close ourselves to exceptions and individual variance and that in many cases these schemas are such a simplified version of reality which may not be true.
Next to gender schemas another factor is important to consider. Small disadvantages add up to a significant difference between the group with most and least advantages over the years. A computer simulation study of a hierarchical, pyramid formed organisation has showed this.
In the simulated organisation women get a disadvantage of 1% at each career step. At the lowest level of the pyramid there were as many women as there were men. At the top of the pyramid, the highest career level, the distribution was 65% men, 35% women. The only cause for such a distribution was the repeated disadvantage of 1%.
Gender schemas: some examples
Women are characterized as nurturing, communal and expressing their feelings. Men are characterized as capable of independent action, going direct to business and reasonable.
Both women and men roughly recognize themselves in these schemas.
If we think of academic success there is a better fit with the male schema than with the female schema. A number of studies now show that this better fit determines our choices for a candidate. Here Prof. Valian provided a couple of examples based on research conducted in the US:
1.An experiment: performance evaluation of the vice-president of an aircraft company in the US.
Two candidates- male and female were presented with fictitious performance reports which only differ in the names, not in the content. Each test group of evaluators got only one of the candidates.
If there is a written performance report that states that the vice-president performs well, subjects in the experiment find that the male and the female vice-president perform equally well. They judge however that the female vice-president is less likable than the male vice-president.
If there is no information about the job performance, subjects assume that the male vice-presidents are more competent than the female ones.
Conclusion: females are not perceived as competent and if they are competent they are perceived as less likable.
2.An experiment: guess who the leader is.
Subjects received photos of different persons working in a committee and were asked who they perceive as the leader of the group. In single sex settings, the person at the end of the table is always pointed out as the leader. But in mixed sex settings the women at the end of the table are only pointed out as the leader in half of the subject’s ratings. If the subjects where asked about who is the facilitator then women were pointed out, even if they were not at the end of the table.
Conclusion: female leaders have to put more effort to get accepted as a leader.
3.An experiment: changing criteria
The subjects had to choose the best person for a construction manager position, based on the variation in two criteria: formal education and work experience. The subjects pointed to education as the most important criteria for the job. This was happening when the candidates were of a single sex - a group of male or female applicants. When the pool of applicants consisted of a mixed sex applicants, the outcome was that the subjects shifted in criteria, i.e, when the male candidate had more experience and less education, they shifted the importance of criteria and made experience more important than education. The outcome was the preference of male applicants, justifying it with shifting the criteria.
Conclusion: Criteria change is dangerous for gender equity. It is advisable to set the criteria beforehand.
4.Evaluation of recommendation letters
Research of recommendation letters of males and females pointed out that the letters that men receive from their superiors are more positive than the ones females receive.
Conclusion: It is advisable when writing letters of recommendation keep in mind to give evenly positive remarks for women as you would do for men in the same case.
What can we do to counteract these gender schemas?
1.Establish an organisational task force that advises the university management on gender specific measures and monitors the application of these measures.
2.Educate throughout the whole university about the existence of gender schemas and teach how to evaluate, how to write letters of recommendation.
3.Institutionalize accountability: In order to select and promote in a gender neutral way you need clear job descriptions and promotion procedures and criteria. After the procedure is finished the committee needs to make a report where it explains the choices made.
4.Benchmark all the data you produce by specifying for males and females:
b.% of men and women in top ranks
c.Time stayed in one rank
5.Make criteria clear for two reasons:
a. Men learn rules informally, whereas women do not have the same kind of access.
b.Everyone has a different opinion about what quality is. By specifying what you need in a certain situation, it is easier to get the right person in the right place. Clear criteria do not mean a checklist but help to get implicit values visible.
6.For recruitment use imagines/videos showing a diverse workplace. This is more effective than mentioning in an advertisement that you want a diverse workplace.
7.On a faculty level: choose one thing to change the gender balance and do this on a day to day basis. E.g.
a.Listen to the suggestions of the female employees.
b.Check if the tasks are divided equally: the teaching chores, the public chores like giving colloquia. Is there equal representation of men and women?
c.Do you use role-models for students and junior faculty?
d.If you write recommendation letters be careful to use the same adjectives/qualifications for men and women.
8.It is not a good idea for women to learn to act like men, because we expect women to show competence and show care about other people as well.