Review of Virginia Valian,Why So Slow, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA & London, 1998, 401


Reviewer: Judy Roitman, University of Kansas

A couple of months ago Kristin Bowman-James, a professor of chemistry here at the University of Kansas, gave a talk in the mathematics department partially based on the book Why So Slow by the cognitive psychologist and linguist Virginia Valian. Her enthusiasm encouraged me to buy the book, and it was indeed as wonderful as she said it was. Clearly it should be reviewed in the AWM Newsletter.

As it turned out, it was, in the May/June 1999 issue, by Cathy Kessel. I didn’t remember the review because the book Kessel reviewed didn’t sound like the one I was reading, so we talked over e-mail and decided that another review was appropriate.

Kessel, as a mathematician turned social scientist (education) is very familiar with the notion of schemas (see below) and focused her review on how well they explain issues in mathematics education (her short answer: important but not the whole picture). Valian’s focus is the slow professional advancement of women, but this is not the focus of Kessel’s review, nor will it be the focus of mine. Not being well read in the social sciences, I found the notion of schemas, especially gender schemas, and the way they play out, powerful in explaining all sorts of things I’d never quite understood. It is this aspect of Valian’s book that I want to emphasize in this review. While Valian focuses particularly on the application of gender and related schemas to the situation of women in the professions, especially the professions with relatively few women, much of the book is applicable to the situation of all women, because all women are caught between their reality and the ways in which they are perceived by others, and the latter are heavily influenced by gender schemas. (So are the former, but somewhat less.)

When my son was three, we took a road trip to New Orleans to see my husband’s family. Somewhere around Talla Bena MS, a small voice piped up from the back seat, “Where do babies come from?” “From their mama’s tummies,” I inaccurately replied. “Then what do daddies do?” he asked. And before anyone could answer he responded, excitedly, “I know! They lift heavy things!”

This, to my mind charming, incident (we are, after all, talking about my son) provides a glimpse into the construction of gender schemas. The notion of schema differs from the notion of stereotype because it is an attempt to deal with serious cognitive questions: what are the differences between men and women? what functions belong to the sphere of men and what functions belong to the sphere of women?

The mind is constructed to make schemas — without schemas we would not be able to efficiently deal with the world, each object being an object unto itself without relation with any other. But schemas tend not to be individualized. They are robust within societies and even across societies. They tend to be based on some sort of averaged fact: women are perceived to be more nurturing than men because most women give birth and no man ever has; women are perceived as shorter than men because on the average women are shorter than men.

And schemas tend to be self-perpetuating, which is the start of the trouble. Valian is very clear on how schemas affect perception, citing experiment after experiment on judgments of attributes, from objective properties such as height to such difficult issues as evaluating merit. In the studies cited, perceptions are clearly warped by the need to conform to schemas. Furthermore, women and men tend to fall into the same traps, no matter how feminist their stated beliefs. We simply see what we expect to see, all of us.

So we expect to see men as successful, because most successful people are men. And we expect to see women as unsuccessful, because most successful people are men. The many studies showing that men tend to attribute success to their talents and women to luck (and that men tend to attribute lack of success to bad luck and women to lack of talent) are not glimpses into individual psychology but glimpses into a common schema shared by men and women.

I had always thought of studies focused on women’s status and accomplishments as, in some sense, studies in differentiation — what is the rate of change? But Valian is looking at the definite integral: she focuses on the accumulation of small differences. Men tend to be slightly over-rated and women slightly under-rated (even, remember, on something as objective as height). Over time these differences accumulate so that lives begin to take very different courses. Furthermore, this accumulation of difference accounts for the self-perpetuation both of gender schemas and the underlying social realities which shape them.

Valian is eloquent and moving on the contradictions women face when gender schemas conflict with other relevant schemas (e.g., professional schemas) and the difficult decisions they have to make in what are essentially lose/lose situations with no graceful way out. She has many examples of this, and to me they form the heart of the book. I will mention just one.

It is well known that women’s contributions to discussions are often ignored, even though a man making the same comment later will find it taken seriously. I’d be surprised if there’s a woman reading this who hasn’t experienced this phenomenon. When it’s happened to me I’ve felt not just disenfranchised but confused about how to deal with it, and never really understood where the confusion came from. After reading Valian’s discussion, the confusion makes sense: the woman is caught in a lose/lose trap. If she points out that she made the same comment earlier, she is pointing out that she was ignored, hence validating an important part of the gender schema — that women need not be paid attention to— and thus reminding everyone that, as a woman, she is someone who can be ignored. But if she doesn’t say anything she will be, of course, ignored. The safe thing to do is not to remind everyone of the gender schema and hope that next time you will be heard, and that is what most women instinctively do. But in so doing they have lost a little something, just as in speaking out they may lose a little more. Either way they lose, and the accumulation of those losses mounts up.

Valian is also precise in her delineations of schema boundaries. Even something as ordinarily uncontrolled as who looks at whom during a conversation — at whom does the speaker look? for how long? at whom does the listener look? for how long? — are loaded with gender and other schemas (schemas of power, for example). And even with such simple actions what is approved of in men can be disapproved of in women. In particular, the subtle signals that are interpreted positively as signs of leadership in men are often interpreted negatively in women because of conflicts with the gender schema for women, so it becomes very difficult for women to be seen as leaders. As most of us who have found ourselves in leadership positions know, we often have to find other ways of signaling leadership than those men use. In Valian’s last chapter, she suggests some ways for women to signal leadership. While I recognize the need, I was disappointed; it’s the only place in the book where she seems to be caving in to the status quo.

Adding to the difficulty, people are very attached to the schemas for their own gender, which form a major part of their sense of personal identity. So breaking part of a gender schema can carry grave emotional consequences, and people go through all sorts of contortions to, if not conform, at least convince themselves that they are conforming to an aspect of their gender schema that in fact does not suit them. The coming-out literature in the gay and lesbian community is full of such examples. While the interplay between schemas and a sense of identity is not a major theme in Valian, it does enter into the discussion, especially in the early chapters which focus on the development and pervasiveness of gender schemas in our lives.

There are positive parts to the picture. The gender schema for women is much more inclusive than for men — when was the last time you saw a man wearing a skirt? — which gives women a wider range of choices. Furthermore, the conflict between gender schemas and other schemas tends to diminish markedly when women become well represented in the population, and to diminish also when women clearly have superior knowledge relevant to a specific task. Valian’s last chapter is entitled Remedies, and while I found it the least convincing chapter, I agree with her that knowledge is power, and that simply knowing about schemas and how they play out can help us resist their spell. Affirmative action workshops would look very different if people paid attention to her analysis, and I suspect they would be more effective. In some sense men need this book more than women, because while Valian is naming experiences most women have had, even if they haven’t articulated them clearly to themselves, men may not have had the experiences, certainly not in the context of gender, and may not even realize the connection.

Writing this review, I am acutely aware of the extent to which I am oversimplifying Valian’s careful and complex discussion, and leaving out many of the important issues she raises. I would be disappointed if anyone walked away from this review feeling that they knew enough about the subject and didn’t need to read the book. Preparing to write this review I thought it would be helpful to mark exceptional passages with post-it stickers. Expecting to mark a dozen or so I ended up with over 50 passages, covering between 20 and 30 distinct topics, and the marked passages are far more subtle and careful than anything I have said. For those of us who have not studied these issues from the cognitive psychology perspective, I strongly encourage the reading of this book. It has made me look at many things in my life very differently, and suspect that it will have the same effect on many others, both women and men.