Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women

Virginia Valian, 1998 MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 401 pp.

Virginia Valian's timely book is an important, scholarly examination of the factors which have underpinned the slow progress of women in the professions, and in particular, academia. At the heart of Valian's analysis are gender schemas, the set of implicit or non-conscious hypotheses about sex differences held by all of us which "affect our expectations of men and women, our evaluations of their work, and their performance as professionals". Her basic assertion is that these schemas have the result of men accruing a series of seemingly small, advantages, and women, a series of disadvantages. The difference in men's and women's professional lives is significant. She notes that in reality, "mountains are made out of molehills, piled one on top of another" (emphasis the reviewer's).

Valian's treatise is comprehensive, beginning with parents' expectations before the birth of their children, early childhood, and through schooling and teachers' interactions with students, including an examination of the perennial topic, 'girls and math'. Her work then sweeps across the nature vs. nurture question before settling on areas in which academics may be more immediately interested, particularly if they are familiar with the backdrop covered in the first half of the book.

The chapter on "Evaluating Men and Women" is of special importance, as this process is key to women's entry and advancement in university faculties (and elsewhere) and is so often presented as objective, unbiased and solely merit-based. Valian's use of extensive recent psychological, sociological and statistical studies, here as throughout the book, unmasks our unconscious assumptions and illustrates again how the accumulation of advantage and disadvantage can promote or retard career success based on gender.

Among the interesting findings is that while we often refer to women's full participation in academia (and science and engineering careers), as more than just numbers, there is an important consequence of a critical mass of women. Valian describes many studies that illustrate that women candidates will be more fairly evaluated when they become more than 25% of the applicant pool. Similarly more women will be granted tenure in faculties where there is already a high proportion of tenured women. Where there is a better balance of numbers, female applicants are no longer identified as women applying for traditionally men's positions.

The chapter on how we interpret our own and others' successes and failures and their attribution to ability, effort, ease of task or luck, is also illuminating. The research cited by Valian suggests that women more often than men see their success as due to uncontrollable factors such as luck. She notes that this interpretation is disadvantageous, leaving one with nothing to learn from. To benefit cognitively from a success and increase the chances for the next one, a person must figure out what was causally relevant.

The extensive sections on "Women in the Professions" and "Women in Academia" document the historical 'progress' and recent status of women in these fields and tease out the factors contributing to career success. Not surprisingly, the data presented demonstrate that women are paid less, and promoted and tenured more slowly than their male peers, and that years of experience, performance or productivity, and other factors often cited as causes, cannot fully explain the situation.

Valian concludes with a chapter on "Remedies" that challenges us all and especially leaders and administrators to recognize our subconscious biases and to use the tools provided to effect positive change. The author also gives women academics specific advice on how to advance one's own career.

"Why So Slow?" is a well-researched comprehensive resource that addresses a broad range of issues and stages in our lives. It takes the reader, particularly if the reader is a woman, from nodding in agreement about experiencing apparently trivial "problems that seemed too petty to bother with, gnatlike", to a greater understanding of what affects career success, and how we and others can act to ensure equity in our universities.

Reviewed by Carolyn J. Emerson