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Law Professor Joan C. Williams on Standing Up for Women in the Workplace

An interview with the "rock star" of gender studies.

October 2015

Video Highlights

Professor Joan C. Williams has been called a “rock star” in the field of gender studies. For more than 25 years, her writing and advocacy have helped reshape the debate about gender equality under the law, including issues of pregnancy discrimination and work-family accommodation. She’s written or co-written eight books and more than 100 academic articles and chapters. Her most recent title, What Works for Women at Work, co-written with her daughter, Rachel Dempsey, provides what the New York Times called “unabashedly straightforward advice in a how-to primer for ambitious women.” She is a distinguished professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, where in 1997 she also founded—and still runs—the Center for WorkLife Law. In August, Williams spoke with Hastings colleague Veena Dubal about her career and her hopes for the future of gender equality in the workplace. Here are edited excerpts from that videotaped discussion.

Q: There’s a huge difference in how I get to live my life as a mother and a law professor as a result of your early work. Could you share how and why you started down this road?

First I want to say, yes, there absolutely is a difference, and you’re a good example of that. When you were interviewing at Hastings, you were about 9,000 months’ pregnant, but nobody mentioned it! And I thought, this is real progress. As for me, I always say I was a lawyer who had a baby. I was a tenured law professor, pregnant with my first child, Rachel, and I had such bad morning sickness that I used to put a sign on my office door saying “please do not disturb.” I would also sleep two hours in the middle of the day, and that’s when I realized, “You know, girl, if you had a real job you would be so fired!” I loved being a mother, but having children made me realize that there’s something deeply wrong with what’s called “the social construction of motherhood” in this country.

What were the first things you studied?

I came out of women’s history, so “Deconstructing Gender,” the very first article I wrote about work-family issues, was framed in the context of the breadwinner-homemaker family that arose around 1780.

Unlike many of your colleagues at that time, you didn’t just look at legal cases and legal history; you took an empirical approach. You’re now a leading voice in social psychology. How did that happen?

It goes back to when the program officer at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation approached me saying the group wanted to fund me. It was in 2000, after I wrote Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It. At that point I made the considered political judgment not to focus on public policy because no matter what I did, we were not going to have new laws in the United States at a national level, and that’s proved true. So I decided to focus on using existing antidiscrimination law in new ways.

One of the main contributions of Unbending Gender is the idea that things won’t change by focusing on women alone; we need to think about the role of men in the workplace and at home. That idea is getting a lot of press now.

The book actually got criticized for its attitude toward men because the conventional attitude at the time was that men’s foot on women’s necks was our only problem. And I do think that there are power differentials between men as a group and women as a group. You’d have to be blind not to see that. On the other hand, I think it’s important to recognize that one of the problems with this breadwinner-homemaker paradigm is that it polices women out of breadwinner roles, but it also polices men out of caregiver roles.

You’ve also changed so much in the field of family-responsibilities discrimination, a term you coined, right?

I did, yeah. One of the key change levers we decided on was to establish family-responsibilities discrimination as an area of the law, and we wanted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to issue guidance. They were calling the idea “caregiver discrimination,” but that signaled that this was just a cute little woman thing, [so we introduced the new term]. In one of the hearings, the Chair said to me that she heard what I was saying, but that she really believed in taking personal responsibility. I explained that we wanted to help women who were trying to take personal responsibility but were getting pushed out of work because of gender bias. I think that was a crucial moment in the adoption of some EEOC guidelines, because, you know, you can’t argue against family responsibilities, right?

The gender bias issue signifies a turn you made away from work-life issues. Can you reflect on that?

For one thing, I became really disheartened at the lack of progress on work-life issues. Things looked really great from the mid ’70s, but [20 years later] it was like a flat-lined patient. And there’s still profound evidence of classic forms of gender bias. I began a project where every time I met a really savvy woman, I asked for an hour of her time and just recited the findings of experimental social psychologists on gender bias. Then I asked a simple question: Any of that sound familiar? I was a little disheartened when 96 percent of the women said yes. That led to What Works for Women at Work.

That book really resonated with me.

I’m sad to hear it.

You’ve been working on something called “bias interrupters.”

There are really different types. At the WorkLife center, we offer training in bias interrupters for managers, which helps them learn how to interrupt the kind of gender bias that occurs at the workplace. A common example is one my daughter calls the stolen idea. It’s when a woman mentions an idea, but nobody picks it up. Then a man repeats it, and, oh my god, it’s brilliant. We teach the manager to say something like, ‘Sam, I’m glad you like that idea. I’ve been thinking about that ever since Pam first said it. You’ve added the next step, and I wonder if Pam wants to weigh back in.’ The other form of bias interrupter is on the organizational level. We’re working with five major companies that have agreed to let researchers study them to identify patterns of bias. And then we institute bias interrupters to change those.

Can you reflect on what you see as the next ten years of professional women’s advancement?

If we keep on having what sociologists call, symbolic compliance, where you just put on a few programs here, maybe give a bias training there, then I’m not hopeful. The future of organizational change is in the hands of the organizations, and we’ll see what they’re going to do.

A version of this article appears in the October 2015 print issue of California Lawyer as “Standing Up for Women.”

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Reader Comments

  1. Anne Bardoel says:

    Thank you Joan. So much to ponder and your articulation of the issues is always so evocative.

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