Emory Report

Feb. 1, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 18

Author Virginia Valian examines women's progress at Feb. 4 lecture

Virginia Valian, author of Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, a book the Kirkus Review called "a scholarly and convincing explanation of women's slow progress in the professions," will speak on Thursday, Feb. 4, at 4 p.m. in the Jones Room of the Center for Library and Information Resources. Following Valian's presentation, Provost Rebecca Chopp, whose office is co-sponsoring the event, will moderate a panel discussion with President Bill Chace, Woodruff Professor Johnnetta Cole and Mary DeLong, chair of the President's Commission on the Status of Women and professor of public health. A reception and booksigning will follow.

The event was scheduled by SAGES (Self-Appointed Gender Equity Specialists). "SAGES is an informal group of Emory women that grew out of the President's Commission on the Status of Women," said Robyn Fivush, professor of psychology and director of Women's Studies." We have continued to work together informally to bring issues of gender and inequality to the attention of the larger Emory community.

"In addition to wanting to hear what Dr. Valian has to say about why women are not progressing as fast as some predicted they would in the academic community, we wanted representatives of the Emory community to address this issue specifically with regard to Emory," added Fivush. "We're interested in creating a better atmosphere for women on campus."

Valian, a professor of psychology at Hunter College at the City University of New York, talked to Emory Report via e-mail about her upcoming lecture:

Can you tell about your presentation? Will it be an overview of your book? I'll be concentrating on how it happens that even people who are sincerely meritocratic can nevertheless judge others inaccurately, and why even small examples of undervaluation of women add up to cause big problems. I'll give a few examples of what institutions and individuals can do differently to improve the status of women.

What was the event described by The New York Times that left you speechless; the document you saw that made you decide to write the book? It was learning that the same vita or resume was evaluated differently depending on whether a man or woman's name was at the top. I hadn't realized that "objective" qualifications weren't going to be judged "objectively." I also hadn't realized just how much in-depth information there was about how people judged women and the consequences of those judgments.

Like many people, I thought of myself as something of an expert on gender just because I noticed various examples of sex differences. Reading the monograph by Geis and her colleagues made me realize there was a lot more to know, that I needed to move from being what psychologists call a "folk theorist" about gender to a scientist. It seemed crucial to me that others profit from this work.

How did you move from specializing in language acquisition in young children to gathering research on the advancement of women? Was it a big leap? My research on language acquisition continues, so I haven't changed fields. One feature of that work is its interdisciplinary character; it involves integrating material from formal syntax, learnability theory, developmental psychology and cognitive psychology, followed by developing and testing hypotheses based on that integration. I enjoy putting ideas together, and it was both challenging and exciting to do it in a new area.

If the data are so compelling about the lag in advancement for women, why don't things change? Of course, things have changed. There has been improvement. Just not enough. The small daily evaluations that we make--they happen without our conscious awareness or intention. And although each of those things is small--say, not paying attention to a woman's suggestion in a meeting--they add up. Each thing seems like a molehill--beneath notice. But over the long haul those molehills add up to a mountain of disadvantage.

What can institutions do to "hurry up" change for women? A lot. Everything from making sure that young men and women have equal information about what is required for advancement and equal opportunity to taking on challenging tasks to identifying and supporting female and male leaders equally. Why So Slow? discusses a number of remedies.

What reactions have you had to your book? I've been really pleased by the variety of different occupations of the people who have been interested in the book: police officers, theater directors, personnel officers, people working in the parks service, independent consultants, physicians, academics. People seem to like the framework I give. It allows them to understand their present position and think about it more productively.

What's next? My work is moving in several directions. I am starting to work on second- as well as first-language acquisition. I have been working on sex differences in math performance. Last but not least, I am working on increasing the visibility of women in science. Even in fields where women are well-represented, they are underrepresented at prestigious conferences and colloquia.

--Jan Gleason

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