BU Today


Women still trail men in academia

Visiting expert says women too are guilty of gender bias

Virginia Valian, expert on gender bias. Photo by Frank Fournier

While many Americans make an effort to level the workplace playing field for male and female professionals, gender bias is still with us. Virginia Valian, a nationally recognized authority on the ways gender bias is manifested and the author of Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, reported that less-than-surprising fact when she spoke at Boston University on April 11. But Valian also pointed to a fact that was quite surprising: women and men are both guilty of perpetuating that bias. In fact, she said, most of her research into gender bias shows no differences in the judgments made by males and females.

Invited by the Provost’s Office, and the Women in Engineering and Science (WISE) at Boston University, Valian, the codirector of the Gender Equity Project at Hunter College of the City University of New York, came to BU to run a series of educational workshops with administrators and faculty. Her visit was part of a response by University administrators to a Faculty Council report last year that found disparities between salaries paid to BU’s male and female faculty members at every rank.
President Robert Brown, who had promised to “start a serious discussion” across campus to address the issue, said he was pleased that the University was seeking advice from Valian. “The visit by Virginia Valian to our campus and her discussions with women faculty and with the academic and administrative leadership are important next steps as we construct our strategy for making Boston University an inclusive environment for both men and women faculty members,” Brown said.

In addition to supervising the workshops, Valian gave a public talk about some of her findings, such as the fact that while women and men often begin their careers with equal pay, women are promoted less frequently and command lower salaries when they are promoted.

At American colleges at universities, according to a 2004 report from the American Association of University Professors, women account for only 38 percent of faculty. Among full-time faculty, women are disproportionately represented at lower ranks and least well-represented among full professors. Women make up 46 percent of assistant professors, 38 percent of associate professors, and 23 percent of full professors, according to the report.

“Women’s achievements and qualifications appear to be less valuable than men’s,” said Valian, who also reported that such value judgments about women were made in equal numbers by both males and females.

In a 1991 study conducted by Valian, a panel of men and women were asked to evaluate job candidates for a position in international business. She found that the same qualifications that worked to the advantage of the male candidates worked against the female candidates. For example, men who spoke a foreign language were seen as making an effort to improve their qualifications for international business. The women who spoke a foreign language were perceived as having acquired that skill for personal reasons.

In another study, called the “head of the table experiment,” male and female subjects were shown pictures of people seated around a table and asked to choose the person who appeared to be the leader of the group. From the pictures of only men, all the respondents chose the man sitting at the head of the table as the leader. From the pictures of only women, all respondents chose as leader the woman sitting at the head of the table. But in pictures with a woman sitting at the head of the table with a group of men and women, half of the respondents, male and female, chose a man as the leader. When the request was changed to “choose the leader or facilitator of the group,” Valian said, more subjects chose the woman at the head of the table.

What is driving these biases? Valian said she avoids the negative term “stereotypes,” using instead “gender schemas.” The schemas at work in the United States, she says, assume that men are capable of independent action, do things for a reason, and get down to the business at hand. They also assume that women are nurturing, communal, and expressive. “These schemas do have a relation to reality,” she said, “but they lead us astray.”

One study she conducted asked subjects to evaluate candidates for a job in construction, with the applicants having either a lot of experience or an advanced degree. When gender was not revealed to the subjects, they chose candidates with a higher level of education 75 percent of the time. When subjects were given names of male candidates with more education and women with more experience, men were chosen for the job 75 percent of the time. Offered educated female candidates and male candidates with more experience, fewer than half the subjects said that education was the more important criterion for the job. “Our standards about who we should hire are dependent on whether a male or a female is applying,” Valian said. “What counts as evidence that you can do the job depends on your sex.”

Gender schemas are not easily changed, she said, but she did offer a plan of action to help institutions such as BU address these problems: educate people about the reasons behind the problem, take direct action, and support research on the subject. Direct actions that could make a difference, she said, include things such as reviewing hiring practices that may weed out women unnecessarily. “Take it as a given that you’re going to mess up,” Valian said. “We need to put procedures in place that catch our mistakes.”