The Course of Reason

The Chilly Climate

May 24, 2012

Last weekend, I worked and attended CFI’s Women in Secularism Conference in Washington, DC. One of the many awesome speakers was a woman named Bernice Sandler. While she isn’t a big name in the secular movement, anyone who cares about feminism should familiarize herself or himself with her work. Sometimes referred to as the “Godmother of Title IX,” Sandler has a long list of accomplishments regarding sex discrimination and sexual harassment, including being the first person to testify in front of a congressional committee to address sex discrimination in education.


Her talk, however, was about the “chilly climate.” For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a chilly climate is what is created when women are treated differently in subtle ways, particularly in the classroom and the workplace. Differing from the sex discrimination we tend to think about, a chilly climate most often comes about unintentionally, and can even involve people who consider themselves feminists.

While one instance of subtly treating women differently than men (sometimes called microinequities) won’t likely have major consequences, the compilation of these small actions can have detrimental effects on women and their self-esteem, aspirations, and roles in the classroom and workforce.

One major example of this is how in meetings, men and women interrupt one another at different rates and in different ways. Sandler found that men tend to interrupt women at a much higher rate than they interrupt other men, and that women interrupt both men and women. Additionally, on the whole, men often interrupt the conversation to show their dominance or trivialize what the other person said, whereas women may do so to show they understand what is being said and move the conversation along.

Even in this single instance, one can see how this might create a chilly climate for women. When women are being interrupted more often and in a less respectful manner, they might feel as though their opinions are not valued as much, and end up limiting their participation. The scary part about this is that these types of microinequities often go unnoticed, even by the affected parties.

Sandler did, however, provide several ways in which we can help prevent the creation of a chilly climate. One solution is to simply be attentive to these microinequities, and take note whenever one occurs. This way, you can bring the issue to the attention of the group members, professor, etc. using evidence rather than just saying “I feel like this is occurring…” However, that’s not to say that you can’t express how the behavior makes you feel. For people who are generally friendly to improving the role of women in society, this is an important rhetorical mechanism.

Though this is just a brief overview of the chilly climate and how one can improve it, Sandler provides many more instances to look out for, as well as more possible solutions, on her website.



About the Author: Stef McGraw

Stef McGraw's photo
Stef McGraw is a Campus and Community Organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She has degrees in philosophy and Spanish from the University of Northern Iowa, where she first got involved in the freethought movement through the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers


#1 Stephanie Zvan (Guest) on Friday May 25, 2012 at 8:51am

Nice write-up. I'm really looking forward to the video coming out. There was just too much to absorb seeing it once.




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