Check out this excellent post on ‘chilly climates’:
What constitutes “chilling” behavior? A teacher calls on the boys in class more than the girls. A CEO ignores what a woman says in a meeting but listens intently when a man makes the exact same point. A conference emcee mentions a female speaker’s appearance rather than (or in addition to) her accomplishments, but feels no need to comment on the appearance of male speakers. A guy at an atheist/skeptics meeting hits on a young woman in an elevatorat 4 AM, ignoring the fact that she just spent the evening talking about how she hates being objectified at such gatherings.
All these sorts of things seem tiny and insignificant by themselves, but they add up, and this produces a cumulative “chilling” effect that makes women feel unwelcome, like they don’t belong. That’s a “chilly climate.” The effect is subtle; sometimes we’re not even consciously aware of it. We just have that nagging feeling of being “less than,” unable to put our finger on why we feel that way.
With all the other trouble in the world, why should we care about this? It’s because those climate issues chase many women out of the hard sciences — and indeed, out of any male-dominated community. In March, the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, conducted an NSF-funded study on the retention (or lack thereof) of women in engineering. Nearly half of the women surveyed who left engineering said they did so because of negative working conditions, lack of advancement or low salary, and one in three left because they did not like the workplace climate, their boss or the culture. Only one in four left to spend more time with family — the usual excuse that gets trotted out when folks try to explain away the low numbers of women in such fields.
The article includes some discussion of sexism within the atheist community as well.