Joan Williams MCP '80, a distinguished professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, is a pioneer in documenting and fighting discrimination against employees with family responsibilities. Her scholarship—which has been published in seven books and more than 90 articles, chapters, and reports—has influenced corporate policies, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, and multiple court rulings.
Changing workplace law was not Williams’s original career goal. After graduating from Yale University, she worked in land-use planning in Portland, Oregon, and envisioned a career as a lawyer involved in low-income housing. As part of that plan, she earned a law degree at Harvard University and a master’s degree in urban planning at MIT.
While she was working as a law professor at American University in the 1980s, however, Williams became a mother, and she noticed how few legal protections were in place for the growing number of working mothers like herself. At the same time, many women were getting fired after becoming pregnant, or losing chances at career growth after maternity leaves. Williams proposed previously unrecognized ways that existing laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, could prevent such treatment.
Video via the Family and Work Institute on YouTube.“I like to be on the sharp edge of a learning curve,” Williams says of her comfort with seeking new legal solutions to complex problems. That’s been true at Hastings, where she joined the faculty in 2005. She is founding director of the school’s Center for WorkLife Law, which develops strategies to expand fair treatment of employees who are caregivers, promote work-life balance, and advance women’s leadership.
Drawing on multiple research fields, she and colleagues have developed a bias interrupters program—a metrics-driven, research-based method that trains managers to detect, name, and reject subtle gender bias. The center is also working with Gap Inc. on a pilot program to reduce work-family conflict by developing more stable work schedules for hourly employees. “We try to identify ways to work with businesses to help advance women and ensure that work-family conflict does not derail their careers,” Williams says.
Williams has been married since the 1970s to James X. Dempsey, a fellow lawyer, and their daughter, Rachel Dempsey, is a lawyer as well. Mother and daughter have collaborated on a book, What Works for Women at Work, written for a general audience. Son Nick is a battery engineer working in Silicon Valley.
This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.