Joan C. Williams

UC Hastings College of the Law

Center for WorkLife Law


After all these years, all these reports, all these initiatives, why does the percentage of women academics in science and engineering remain so low? The traditional response is to point to the “chilly climate” for women. That metaphor is outdated. What keeps women back is gender bias, although it does “not look like what we thought discrimination looked like.” The time has come to link the chilly climate with two literatures that have flowered since the “climate” metaphor was invented in 1982 by Roberta Hall and Bernice Sandler (Sandler et al., 1996; Sullivan, 2005).

The first is the growing literature in experimental social psychology on stereotyping and cognitive bias, which shows that many of the patterns that create a “built-in headwinds” for women in the sciences and engineering reflect documented patterns of gender bias (Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971)). The second is antidiscrimination law, which increasingly accepts stereotyping evidence in court and highlights that “chilly climate” patterns may be illegal. This article provides a very brief introduction to both literatures. Before it does so, it provides an even briefer introduction to a third discipline that provides crucial data for understanding why women’s progress has been so glacially slow: demography (Valian, 1998).

“It did not look like what we thought discrimination looked like.”

(MIT, 1999)

This article looks briefly at the demography that provides crucial context for understanding why women’s progress has been so glacially slow in academic positions in science and engineering. It then provides a brief introduction to the law and experimental social psychology relevant to understanding the “chilly climate.”


Paper presented at the National Academies Convocation on Maximizing the Success of Women in Science and Engineering: Biological, Social, and Organizational Components of Success, held December 9, 2005, in Washington, DC.

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