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  • Beyond Gender Schemas:Improving the Advancement of Women in Academia
  • Virginia Valian (bio)

Why are so few women at the top of their profession, whatever the profession is? After all, the data show that progress has been made: men and women make roughly equal starting salaries at similar ranks.

So is there a problem? Yes, not one but two. The data also show that:

  1. 1. a problem remains: advancement is slower for women than for men; as careers progress, even controlling for a variety of variables, women earn less than men.

  2. 2. the problem is general, occurring in all the professions—science, business, medicine, law, academia.

The statistics on women in academia are well documented and summarized in a number of places.1

The generality and ubiquity of the problem shows the necessity for a general explanation. Since the phenomena are not confined to a single profession, we need to understand what underlies them. The explanation I focus on is social-cognitive; it examines the moment-by-moment perceptions and judgments that disadvantage women. The social-cognitive account relies on two key concepts: gender schemas and the accumulation of advantage. Very briefly: the gender schemas that we all share result in our overrating men and underrating women in professional settings, only in small, barely visible ways: those small disparities accumulate over time to provide men with more advantages than women.

As I present it, the social-cognitive account is "cold." It is purely cognitive rather than emotional or motivational. It is intended to explain what goes wrong [End Page 198] in environments where nothing seems to be wrong, where people genuinely and sincerely espouse egalitarian beliefs and are well-intentioned, where few men or women overtly harass women. My account thus provides no explanation for extreme forms of hostility against girls and women, ranging from contemptuous dismissal to name-calling to rape, some of whose perpetrators live in relatively benign environments.2

A different account would see women's failure to thrive in academia as part and parcel of hostility and violence toward girls and women. On that account, my cognitive analysis would seem not just limited but fundamentally misrepresentative of the underlying phenomena. My claim is that misogynist environments are not extensions of environments, like most academic departments, where women do not advance at the same rate as men. The phenomena are not on a continuum, with disparities in salary and promotion at one end, sexual harassment in the middle, and rape at the other end. The various phenomena do have something in common: the same core cold cognitions underlie them all.

But should those cognitions—gender schemas—be called sexist? I make here a distinction similar to one made by Hirschfield (1997) between racialism and racism. Racialism is the result of a cognitive process. Humans are built to categorize; categorization is the first step in the development of hypotheses. We also tend to prefer the fewest categories that will do the job. In the folk psychology of sex and race, even though two divisions are too few, many of the data can be accommodated (albeit with significant distortion) into two classes. As Hirschfield notes, visual cues facilitate categorization: a stethoscope signals a physician, a bent back signals age. A stethoscope, of course, is not an inherent property; it is not biologically mediated. Visually perceived traits that appear to be biologically based, such as a bent back, powerfully support beliefs of difference (Hoffman and Hurst 1990).

Our schemas represent males' and females' traits accurately in some respects and inaccurately in others. On my account, inaccuracies do not render schemas sexist. Sexism steps in when values are attached or when prescriptions are imposed. For example, our schemas represent females as less concerned than males about earning a large income. The surprise we experience when we encounter a woman with high income aspirations is not sexist. But if we disapprove of her ambition more than we would disapprove of similar ambition on the part of a man, we are being sexist. Similarly, on my account, practices that unintentionally and inadvertently disadvantage women compared to men are not inherently sexist. They are undesirable and should be changed, but they are not sexist...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2001
Print ISSN
0887-5367
Pages
pp. 198-213
Launched on MUSE
2005-07-14
Open Access
No
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