UM seeks greater role for women in faculty

Posted Feb. 11, 2011, at 8:28 p.m.
Professor Virginia Valian of Hunter College addresses the crowd gathered for her lecture &quotWhy So Slow? The Advancement of Women" on Friday in Minsky Hall at the University of Maine in Orono. Valian's lecture is the first public event presented by the UMaine Advance Rising Tide Center, a National Science Foundation-funded project that uses a research approach to developing opportunities for women faculty members in the science, technology, engineering, math and social-behavioral sciences.
Professor Virginia Valian of Hunter College addresses the crowd gathered for her lecture "Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women" on Friday in Minsky Hall at the University of Maine in Orono. Valian's lecture is the first public event presented by the UMaine Advance Rising Tide Center, a National Science Foundation-funded project that uses a research approach to developing opportunities for women faculty members in the science, technology, engineering, math and social-behavioral sciences.

ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine recently received a $3.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation that it hopes will drastically change the cultural dynamic between male and female faculty members on campus.

The initiative is aimed at using a research-based approach to address the policies, practices and attitudes that limit opportunities for women faculty members in certain academic disciplines such as engineering, mathematics and the sciences.

The move will be spearheaded by UMaine’s Rising Tide effort, which is a group of faculty members at the school dedicated to the advancement of women in academia. The effort will include events and strategic measures such as leadership development and equity training to achieve its goals.

The first of those events was held Friday at UMaine’s Minsky Recital Hall. Virginia Valian, a guest speaker from Hunter College in Manhattan, gave a lecture titled “Why So Slow? The Advancement Of Women.”

Before a crowd of more than 50 people, Valian, who teaches language development, explained why women are often “underrated” and “disadvantaged” at the workplace and in society.

“Data shows that women don’t advance at the same rate as men,” she said. “They work fewer hours and have less specialties in the workplace.”

Valian attributed the disparities to fewer women graduating from college than men and not enough child care facilities in the workplace, among other things. But she said the greatest detriment to women trying to climb the social ladder is the way society identifies men and women.

Valian called these methods of identification “gender schema,” which she likened to stereotypes.

“Men are perceived to be task-oriented, strong and instrumental, while women are perceived to be nurturing, communal and expressive of their emotions,” she said.

These gender traits, Valian said, are not going away anytime soon, and almost everyone is guilty of “understanding their worlds” with these traits, even if the person is unaware of it — something the guest speaker said she was guilty of herself from time to time.

In effect, the traits often have led to unfavorable evaluations of women in numerous studies and in the workplace.

Valian pointed to a study in which undergraduate students were asked to identify the leader in a group of five people seated at a table. In the first picture, a man was seated at the head of the table, and in the second picture, a woman was seated at the head of the table. Students identified the man in the first picture as the leader 100 percent of the time, while they chose the woman in the second picture to be the leader only 50 percent of the time, selecting a man seated adjacent to the woman the other 50 percent of the time.

“I’m not making mountains out of molehills,” Valian said. “In life, small gains turn to big gains — and if you don’t have access to small gains, you’re never going to get ahead.”

Valian added that, through incremental changes such as the effort being undertaken at UMaine, women will attain a greater role in society, but she said their disadvantage in the workplace is still a persistent problem worth discussing and improving upon.

UMaine Senior Vice President and Provost Susan Hunter was also in attendance Friday, as she is a member and principal investigator of the Rising Tide effort.

“The school has a proud history of supporting female faculty members,” she said. “We hope this grant money and events like these will help retain and attract women to our campus.”

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