Archive for August, 2011

If someone were to compile a list of common excuses that should have been apologies, “I didn’t mean it like that” would be at the top of the list. This is a rule that applies to the world at large as well as to the skeptical community. Many a conversation about the lack of women in skepticism and the pervasiveness of sexism in the environment has gone off the rails at the point where someone will point out that a certain word or behavior is sexist (or racist, or ableist, or classist, or transphobic), and the person who has uttered or performed that word or behavior insists that it’s not sexist because he or she didn’t mean it like that.

Oh, words! Always meaning things to other people that the speakers don’t mean themselves! What is a person to do?

What a person is to do is understand that language exists in a context, not a vacuum, and every time a word is uttered it carries with it not some pure, limited meaning but a complicated history full of significance and meaning that varies by person. Words that might be inoffensive  in one context (like labeling a vagina in biology class) become very sexist and demeaning in another (like labeling a politician a vagina when you disagree with her politics)–and sometimes you won’t know in advance what those words and contexts are! Seems very unfair, I know, but that’s how language works. Furthermore, the intent of one person to not be sexist is not more powerful than the actuality of other people experiencing sexism, and an audience–not a speaker–decides if a word is sexist or not. And the decision of that group of people that another word is not sexist to them doesn’t mean that the word is never sexist to any other group ever. If a single woman takes offense at a remark that no other person in the world would consider sexist, that remark is still harmful to her. If you care about that single woman and you do not want to harm her, you will not repeat that remark. Her reaction to the word determines its offensiveness, not your intent to be nice when you were unknowingly hurtful.

Your intent to not be sexist doesn’t make you not sexist. Not intending to be sexist matters if someone is judging your character, but not as much as immediately trying to make amends for having been sexist if you’ve been called out for it. Apologizing immediately matters, and checking your vocabulary in the future matters, and might make your protestations about not meaning to be sexist sound believable. It won’t undo the harm you caused even inadvertently, but it can keep you from causing more harm later.

Here are some things you should not do if called out for having said something sexist that you did not intend to be sexist:

  1. Begin an etymological argument about how the origin of the word is not sexist.
  2. Accuse the listener of being too sensitive about language.
  3. Make a list of other words or behavior that other people do that might be sexist.
  4. Make a list of all the things you have done in the past to prove you couldn’t be sexist.

Wrapping the banner of I Didn’t Intend It That Way around you doesn’t make sexism within the active skeptical movement disappear, and it doesn’t make the women who want to participate in skepticism immune to its harmful effects. Protesting that you don’t intend to hurt women doesn’t mean very much if your next sentence announces your intent to keep using language you’ve just been told hurts women, especially if your third sentence attempts to portray women who have asked you to check your language as evil censors who are trying to undermine free speech. The right to use sexist language, purposefully or accidentally, is yours to claim, but it might counter your attempts to bring more women into your community. If you care more about using sexist words than you care about bringing women into skepticism, then that’s just your priority. Just realize how one affects the other.

For an even better example of how intent is irrelevant, click through to this essay, “Intent! It’s Fucking Magic!” from the blog Genderbitch: Musings of a Trans Chick. It’s what inspired the topic of this post, but Genderbitch says it better than I have, and provides charts and examples to boot!

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So it’s an old conversation by now.

Question: Why aren’t more women actively involved in the skeptical community?
Answer: Because of this and this, which is sexist.
Exclamation: How dare you call me sexist! I’ve never done that! You are too rude to listen to.

Whereupon much time is wasted by people (usually men) taking offense at outrageous insult, demanding apologies from women, and generally having to be mollycoddled back into civility so that the conversation about why the aforementioned behaviors are keeping women out of sexism, until somebody (usually a man) hears about another behavior that discourages women from active participation and the histrionics start all over again. It is apparently impossible for some people to hear general advice given to a group without explicit, upfront statements that reassure them that of course they’ve personally done nothing wrong and it only refers to other people in very specific ways. To have their points of view and their thoughts considered, women are asked to walk on eggshells around the feelings of men who–by their own admission–are not the people who the remarks are about.

It’s a very mysterious phenomenon. Somehow it is possible for the exact rhetorical device to be employed in other contexts without individuals taking offense at having to hear it. For example, the following statements have been uttered in the skeptical community without anyone not intended to receive the advice taking offense:

  • Don’t drink and drive.
  • Don’t use hand sanitizer.
  • Don’t buy kittens from pet stores.
  • Don’t get an adjustable rate mortgage.
  • Don’t make claims without citing your sources.

You know what doesn’t happen when someone who works in finance tells people to not get adjustable rate mortgages? People with fixed rate mortgages don’t take it personally. Why not? Because it isn’t about them. They understand that the advice is for other people who have performed that behavior, and they move on. They don’t react with shock that anyone would offer the advice to not get adjustable rate mortgages without first excusing all the people who have gotten fixed rate mortgages or no mortgage at all and then complimenting those fixed rate/no mortgage people for being so wise and rational. They don’t claim to be sorely offended by being lumped in a group by the finance person with all those people who got adjustable rate mortgages. They don’t demand apologies from the super-rude financier before listening to the arguments about why adjustable rate mortgages are undesirable. They don’t suggest that if the financier wants to be taken seriously he or she better be much more polite to all those people the financier wasn’t talking to.

The financier wasn’t talking to people with fixed rate mortgages. People who get fixed rate mortgages don’t have to change their behavior. Nobody assumes that the financier was talking to people who get fixed rate mortgages when the financier said to not get adjustable rate mortgages. Of course not! Because it isn’t about them, and because the usage of the phrase “people, don’t do that” is never assumed to be directed at anyone who isn’t doing that, with one exception: women telling men to change their behavior.

Women who want to suggest that men change behavior are not allowed to use the same rhetorical device that anyone else telling any other group to change any behavior is allowed to use. For some reason, even men who don’t engage in sexist behaviors take offense at a woman telling other men who do engage in sexist behaviors to not engage in those behaviors. This is very strange, and makes no sense, unless at least one of the following conditions is true:

  1. Those men think every woman is talking to them all the time.
  2. Those men are offended when women tell any man to change his behavior.
  3. Those men don’t want to admit to behaviors women say are sexist.
  4. Those men want the option of engaging in sexist behaviors in the future.

It’s the only explanation. Otherwise, why would men who do not engage in sexist behaviors be personally offended and demand apologies from women who were given advice to other people? If one of the four items on the list didn’t apply to a particular man, he should not take it personally… unless one of the four items applies to him. In which case he should stop complaining that the woman is unfairly lumping him with other men, unless he thinks the allegiance of men against women is more important than women speaking up about what they want before they join your group.

If someone is critiquing behavior you don’t engage in, don’t make it your problem. If you want to be distanced from the group described as engaging the behavior, don’t claim offense when that group is criticized. If someone fails to exclude you explicitly and with reverence before offering generic advice about male behaviors that you don’t do, treat it as if you were hearing advice about mortgages you don’t have. Don’t take personally what applies to other people just because a woman is bringing up behaviors men do.

If you are so outraged that a woman is critiquing some other guy’s behavior, you have probably already identified with the other guy; she doesn’t have to do the work of lumping you together because you’ve already done it for her. If you are taking criticisms about sexism personally, there might be a reason for it (see the numbered list above). If you know for certain you do not engage in the sexist behaviors a woman has identified, ignore her. Don’t argue just to argue. It doesn’t solve any problems, and it makes those problems last longer. She isn’t talking to you. Don’t make it about you when it’s not, unless it is. And if it is, listen. And don’t demand special treatment from women giving advice about avoiding sexism if you wouldn’t demand it from mortgage advisors about mortgages, or animal advocates about adopting animals, or public service announcements about driving drunk, or doctors about antibiotic resistant bacteria, or skeptics demanding that you have good sources to support your claims.

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First, a primer, from a person with only a very basic understanding of the subject.

“Sex-positive” feminists (self-described) are often placed at odds with purported “sex-negative” feminists (not a word they use themselves; they just call themselves “feminists”) over subjects like sex work (ie, prostitution and pornography). There is lots and lots of overlap between the two groups, but it can be grossly simplified into the idea that sex-positive feminists approve of sex work, and believe that it is a job like any other that should not be criminalized or stigmatized, and might benefit from government oversight and regulation. Non-sex-positive feminists believe that sex work institutions are harmful to women, as individuals and as a class, and fight against legitimizing it. “Sex-negative” is a pejorative term for this group of feminists and not a label they use to describe themselves. They may, in fact, like sex, and may not, actually, stigmatize interpersonal sexual relationships; the harm they attribute to sex work is political and cultural, and very often violent at the individual level. The way they describe the consequences of sex work makes people feel bad about prostitution and porn, and when conversations turn to prostitution and porn, they can be real buzzkills.

Lots of men prefer talking to sex-positive feminists rather than feminists (according to the differences denoted above), because lots of men like prostitution and porn, particularly when the financial transaction makes it easy to pretend that it’s just business and there are no victims (at least when prostitution and porn are done correctly). Prostitution and pornography come up as topics fairly frequently within skeptical communities (frequently, that is, for a scientific and technical interest), largely because of the large proportion of men within the community (men are the primary consumers of the sex trades). It comes up because people within communities are social and talk to each other about lots of different things, and porn is a common bonding experience for men online. It’s when women get involved in these conversations (about porn or prostitution) as analyzers (rather than as providers) that you then start to hear about “sex-positive” and “sex-negative” feminists. Sex-positive feminists don’t mind porn in theory; “sex-negative” feminists do. The use of these labels delineates to women which types of feminists are welcome to participate within that skeptical environment. Hint: “Sex-negative” feminists are told to like it or leave it. Sex-positive feminists are told to explain why porn and prostitution are really OK if done correctly (and they usually will).

End primer.

This entire business about the fake category of “sex-negative” feminism keeps the number of women participating in active skepticism to a minimum. Is it a conspiracy to keep porn around? I dunno. Scapegoating a less visible population is certainly a tried-and-true tactic of vilifying an “other” to promote in-group bonding. More or less demanding (by misrepresenting the women who vary from the rule) that women be sex-positive or be elsewhere means that women who are put off by the incorporation of sex into skepticism will stay out of your community; the risk comes in not knowing what percentage of women feel that way. Is it a majority of women? I dunno. Is the percentage of women in skepticism an indicator at all? I dunno (but the majority of women are not actively involved). But defining in narrow terms which women are welcome in skepticism is going to work against your efforts to recruit more women to the cause.

And this is the most astonishing thing: Who cares about sex-positive feminism within skepticism? Why on earth does a woman have to be a sex-positive feminist to help you with your letter-writing campaign to keep creationism out of textbooks? How is tolerating pornography relevant to the anti-vaccination movement? What does the politcal topic of regulating prostitution have to do with collecting data for human-caused global warming? And why do you want women to give you permission to mix up sex with skepticism in the first place? Why are you trying to bring sex into the business of skepticism? Which do you care about more? What does sex-positive feminism have to do with skeptical anything, outside of skeptical inquiry to the effects of sex work? The answer is nothing. There is no legitimate skeptical reason to invent and deploy (and then dismiss) a category of women who won’t overlook your non-skeptical, sexual behaviors within the community except that you don’t want to give the behaviors up and you don’t want to examine the reasons why. Like I said, buzzkill. And for some reason, separating sex business from skeptical business never seems to be an acceptable option.

I mean, it’s one thing to have a discussion about the potential harm of sex work or the possible benefits of legalizing or regulating sex work, and for people to discuss philosophy and data to support their arguments. (And these types of discussions might occur more often as more women become leaders within the skeptical movement, but they are not common now.) Supporting or decrying potential legislation, for example, based on evidence and reason falls well within the skeptical umbrella, but to fully explore the topic you’d need sex-positive feminists and other feminists and people who haven’t thought about it at all. Drumming out non-sex-positive feminists before the conversation can even be had would institutionalize biases and preconceived notions, and prejudice the group to conclusions about it. That’s not good skepticism. And if you’ve gone out of your way to denigrate non-sex-positive feminists beforehand, the ones you invite to participate in the discussion you’ve already predisposed your community to take less seriously.

The only place sex-positive feminists and non-sex-positive feminists come into conflict is within the scope of sex work and the politics of sex. Manufacturing conflict within non-sex work topics because you want to keep the sexytime in skepticism is going undermine your efforts to bring more women into the fold. Non-sex-positive feminists are not enemies to the skeptical movement. Requiring sex-positive feminism–be it officially or by casting aspersions on and creating strawmen about non-sex-positive feminism–unnecessarily alienates potential allies. There are a lot of women out there who could help you. Don’t pit them against each other over sex.

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This post also appears as part of Transatlantic Blonde’s Feminist Friday series. Follow the link below for more posts!

This is a link to the Feminist Friday hosting blog. Click it.

What do the words “twat” and “dick” have in common? They are both gendered insults–words used to insult another person by referring specifically to genitalia (usually via a slang word), and which also includes the word “bitch.”* Gendered insults are so prevalent in the culture that they have been completely normalized and people often don’t even notice when they are using them, but “being completely normalized” is not equivalent to “unsexist,” and if you’re trying to create an environment within the skeptical community that is more welcoming to women (for the purpose of getting more women actively involved in skepticism), then you are going to have to break the habit.

*”Douche” is gendered and an insult, but it’s offensiveness to women is controversial. Some people claim that it implies vaginas are stinky and it is insulting because it makes the vagina’s natural state seem bad; some people claim that it’s a proven scam and thus it’s insulting because of its scamminess and thus isn’t gendered. I am in the camp that it’s a gendered insult and thus a no-no, but it’s not a hill I’d die on, and I can’t believe I’ve actually written this many sentences about it. And by this many sentences I mean three.

Explaining why gendered insults is sexist is confusing to a lot of people, partly because issues of politeness and decorum get mixed up in it. There are many different slang terms for genitalia which run the gamut from raunchy to euphemistic, and the usage of some of those terms is completely unremarkable and the usage of others is considered the worst word ever. Furthermore, what is considered unacceptable among one group of people might be considered positively literary among another, and there are no hard and fast rules regarding individual words.  What I’m going to do is break down the three issues regarding gendered insults that cause the most confusing first, and then explain why you should stop using them if you want to be welcoming to women after.

It’s not about being prudish.

You could be in a biology class discussing the reproductive system, and pull out the C-word to answer a question about female anatomical structure. Is that sexist? No. It’s unprofessional (because you aren’t calling things in a science class by their scientific names) and it might get you in trouble with your teacher (depending on school rules and the teacher’s tolerance for vulgarity and/or why you decided on that particular word choice), but it is not sexism. Saying “cunt” when you are actually talking about female genitalia does not create an environment that is hostile to women. It creates an environment that is hostile to people who don’t like vulgarity. I’m not going to say that sexism might not be behind why some person chooses that word over others, but it’s not sexism.

It’s not about being a hypocrite.

Gendered insults are insulting. Period. It doesn’t matter if you are throwing around words like “pussy” and “twat” or “dick” and “prick”–an insult is an insult and whether you are male or female using words that refer to male or female genitalia, you are being rude. Period. Gendered insults are equally rude. It’s not nice to insult people (even if they have done something mean or bad), and if you are at the point where you are hurling insults at another person, male or female, you are being unmannerly. It is a breach of etiquette. If there’s a spectrum of insults, gendered insults are probably on the boorish side (because of their association with sex), but there are lots of other insults there. If your skeptical community is a place where lots of people use lots of insults, it’s not very welcoming to anyone.

It is about the balance of power, and demeaning women.

Vulgarity and rudeness aside, there is a special barb to female gendered insults (directed at men or women) that perpetrates a culture of hostility to women, for reasons that are historical and sociological, and very well entrenched. The political effect of female gendered insults is far greater than the political effect of male gendered insults, for two reasons:

1. Female gendered insults remind women that traditionally their role is to provide sex and offspring to males. They portray “woman” and “vagina”  as interchangeable, and the global culture right now is one with high sexual objectification of women and very low political agency of women. Calling a woman a “cunt” or “twat” or “bitch” reduces her to the parts of her body that men have found useful throughout the millennia. Calling a woman a “vagina” may be more scientific or polite, but it accomplishes the same thing. Calling a man by these terms is an insult to women because it acknowledges the power differential; it insults him by putting him in the lower class and insults women by labeling them the lower class.

2. Male gendered insults do not carry any of the historic and political baggage that female gendered insults do. (Pulling something out of the air about goddess cultures or some historical matriarchy is not going to be a very good argument about the state of the world then and now, so save your breath.) Furthermore, “male” is “normal.” Male is the default assumption for just about everything, and so a male gendered insult is no worse than a non-gendered insult like “asshole” or “bag of hammers.” No one is insulted by being lumped in with the ruling class (versus the breeding class). Sure, references to male genitalia fall under the “rude” and “vulgar” categories, but that’s just because they are associated with sex and sex is bad. You want to know why sex is bad? It’s women’s fault. It’s their lust that has to be contained, and their offspring that needs to be controlled.

If all the skeptical community did was stop employing female gendered insults, it would make the environment more welcoming to women because it would stop emphasizing that women occupy a lower social position to men in the grand scheme of things. If the skeptical community wants to also attract people–any people–who are deterred by vulgarity and rudeness from joining groups, then it would benefit from dropping gendered insults altogether. It all depends on what message they are trying to send to what group, and that’s a marketing thing that probably equals common sense, and nobody likely needs reminding of that. I don’t know how many people in the world are put off by vulgarity or rudeness anymore. But female gendered insults? Very off-putting. Real problem.

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“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”  –Red Queen to Alice, Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

I haz an epigraph! Seems fitting to engage in a bit of literary tradition in the same post in which I engage also in a bit of blogger tradition and link to and analyze an article from another website (and toss out a lot of cliches instead of coining original phrases):

Push to Talk: The Tricky Business of Being a Woman on Vent” by Becky Chambers, which tackles the subject of sexism within the gaming community. (I must thank Skepchick.org for sending me to the article in the first place; is that enough attribution?) Here’s the pertinent passage from Chambers’s article:

For those of you who have gone through really rough times in game, I know this is over-simplifying. Yes, those encounters hurt. Yes, they’re unfair. Yes, it’s scary and infuriating to have some stranger’s voice coming into your home while you’re trying to unwind after work or school, preying on you solely because of your gender. But you’re still here. You’re still playing, just like the girls who fought for their own baseball gloves forty years ago. Hang in there. It is getting better. It’s just going to take some time.

“It takes time” is a very common excuse for why sexism exists within the skeptical movement, too. “Old people have old-fashioned ideas,” young people say, “and when they have retired from the movement/society/politics/business, they will take their sexist ideas with them and everyone will be equal and happy and fine.” This statement, which masquerades as comforting, is simply a way of passing the buck and avoiding the problem, thus freeing anyone alive right now of any responsibility to actually do something to eliminate sexism in the skeptical movement. Waving your hands for twenty-five years until today’s babies grow up is an ineffective strategy for social change. Furthermore, old people just don’t die like they used to, and they retire from their positions at later and later ages. You can’t rely on their sexist attitudes (which no one actually bothers to confirm are their actual attitudes and not attitudes held by a lot of people of different ages) dissipating, especially if everyone who works with them picks up their sexist habits and practices them in the decades ahead. That’s just setting up a situation of new old people, same old sexism. And telling women to be (passively) patient and chastising the ones who go “too far” to expose the problem caused by sexism (see below) is another tired example of what appropriate behaviors for women are supposed to be.

What the excuse of “it takes time” reveals is a profound unawareness of how social change happens (hint: lots of arguing and fighting is how social change happens). Here is the next paragraph of the passage, which reveals more profound unawareness of how social change happens, and includes two icky tropes to boot:

And yes, gentlemen, some women take their ire too far. I know that many of you would never dare to say the things that get spat at us. Try to remember that the anger you’re encountering is often a defense mechanism. Tell the jerks to shut up and welcome the ladies who want to play.

Icky Trope 1: The need for women to “sweeten” their message to men–excuse me, gentlemen–by flattering them before making super-polite nudges towards bare minimum decency (true gentlemen tell jerks to shut up and welcome ladies without having to be reminded)

Icky Trope 2: Psychologizing women’s anger, thereby diminishing it and making it easier to dismiss (it’s just a defense mechanism, and it isn’t rational)

Ineffective Strategy for Social Change 2: Telling jerks to shut up and be nicer to women (talk is cheap)

You know that phrase, “We’re as mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore”? Women are as mad as hell about inequality and sexism and they aren’t going to take it anymore. Instead, they take radical steps (boycotting things and telling men they are behaving badly without complimenting them first is what passes for radical within the skeptical community) and make life unpleasant for a lot of people. So unpleasant, in fact, that these people have to reevaluate what they liked so much about sexism (and there is a lot to like); so unpleasant, in fact, that they actively seek out ways to make pain go away (stimulus, response! it’s biology!). Squeaky wheels get oil. That’s what causes social change. Reassuring the perpetrators and enablers of sexism that they are very good people and that these women’s criticisms don’t apply to them reinforces the status quo. Telling sexist people to not be sexist doesn’t cause social change. Making rules about sexist behaviors and enforcing sanctions causes social change. And never letting your guard down for a minute once you’ve achieved some modicum of social change only might help you keep your social change in place, as the Red Queen and anyone following laws about reproductive rights in the United States (or Title IX, a law referred to in the Vent article) already knows.

There are jerks online, yes, and some of them can be downright cruel, particularly when anonymity comes into play. But that’s true anywhere. I’ve had my share of unpleasant things said to me at bars, but that doesn’t mean I shun such places in favor of drinking at home with my blinds drawn just because some idiot said something untoward about my boobs. If someone insults you, find someone else to play with. If a guild is giving you a hard time, find another one, or start your own. I cherish the friends I’ve made online, and I’ve had a blast gaming with them over the years. I hate the thought that people are missing out on this amazing digital playground solely because of those previously mentioned bad apples. Don’t let them win.

1. “Putting up with unpleasantness” versus “staying home alone” is a false dichotomy. Being abused is not a requirement of being social, and there are plenty of places women can spend their time and pursue their goals without experiencing it. The author herself provides an example of how she has actively created such a space in her very next sentence.

2. The toleration of “bad apples” who perpetuate sexism, within the gaming community or within the active skeptical movement, means that your “playground” is not an amazing thing that women who stay away are missing out on. It means it is a sucky environment that some women have found a way to endure.

3. “Don’t let them win”? If you’ve acknowledged that people within your community are working against women and you are not kicking out those people and/or shouting them down, they’ve already won. You’re following rules that they’ve set, and a generation’s worth of time letting them run unchecked will make them stronger.

Time is not on your side. Patience is not a virtue. The waiting is not the hardest part. Well-behaved women seldom make history. You’ve gotta fight for your right to <verrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-erb!>.

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When women try to explain the ways in which sexism–certain, specific aspects and behaviors of sexism–has kept them out of active participation of skepticism, they receive a fairly consistent set of responses. Some people listen to what the woman say, show them empathy and try to change what they do; some people react angrily to the woman and dismiss them or blow off the problem as insignificant; some people listen to what the women say and then go to great lengths to explain why they’ve been doing these sexist things and why they will continue to do them, and offer other insights from the giving end of sexism to help the women better understand the situation they are complaining about.

Explanations range from these complicated assumptions about biological sex differences and the fate of the human race, some tap into a long cultural history of gender roles, and some describe how personality quirks of individual people make it just so much harder to move through life without doing those things. Each one of these explanations is full of details, and human interest, and tells a story about one person’s struggle to get by, and can teach women lots and lots of things they may not know about what it’s like to be sexist. In fact, some of these explanations is so detailed and data rich that you could spend a whole week analyzing them from a psychological and sociological perspective. There’s probably material for ten dissertations in these stories! But if you are trying to reach out to women who have been avoiding active participation in skepticism for a list of reasons they can articulate, spending a lot of time delving into these stories from the delivery side of sexism is a pretty big waste of time.

Knowing a hundred things about why people do the things that keep women out of skepticism doesn’t make it more appealing to them. Having a better understanding of why people want to continue being sexist doesn’t make being on the receiving end of sexism more palatable. A woman might perfectly comprehend why some guy really, really feels like his only option is to hit on her when she’s alone in an elevator late at night and still not want him to do it. She might appreciate all the reasons why a group thinks feminism is outside the scope of skepticism and still disagree with their conclusion. She might believe that you tried to get more women speakers on your panel and still judge you for not trying harder. Having a really, really good excuse for maintaining a sexist environment doesn’t obligate women to excuse it.

If you want more women in your skeptical community and those women have told you what needs to change before they join, and you just spend a lot of time talking about why it’s been like that, you aren’t helping to solve the problem. You’re just talking, and when you are done talking, these women aren’t going to overlook all the sexism and then just join your community. They are going to repeat their list of what needs to change. All you will have done is made the process of recruiting more women to active participation in skepticism take longer.

Your perspective of why sexist behaviors exist may be fascinating, but sharing it here is not helpful. If you want to help solve the problem of increasing the number of women actively participating in skepticism, either address the issues women identify as keeping them out of the skeptical community or state up front you are not willing to accommodate them. Don’t stall the conversation by filibustering. Let the women work with you to make your skeptical environment more welcoming or let them move on to another organization that will be able to meet their needs, and spare everyone the distraction of your off-topic tale.

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It’s easy for some people to brush off claims about sexism within skepticism on the grounds that “feminism” isn’t “scientific.” Skepticism has been associated in the culture at large (and within skepticism) as the cousin of the scientific method and technological advancement, and good skeptics always demand that claims be backed up with reason and evidence. Making complaints about sexism often comes in the form of anecdotes, however, and for people who are either very reluctant to admit to sexism within skepticism or else who downplay its affects or significance, criticizing feminism as unscientific and thus out of skepticism’s range wraps up the matter to their satisfaction quite nicely: they can say they are treating the matter as it should be treated and then they can ignore everything they hear.

There are problems with this approach. First of all, feminism is a philosophy. It is not supposed to be scientific, and dismissing it as unscientific is sort of a nonsequitur and is pointless. Nobody makes the claim that it is scientific(is that a strawman?).  Feminism is about beliefs and values, such as believing that women and men should have equal rights and protections and valuing this belief enough to fight for it. It doesn’t require proof, or data, or predictability, or falsifiability, or repeated results. You either believe that women and men should have equal rights and protections or you don’t. You either value this belief enough to fight for it or you don’t. You can be a skeptic and not believe that women and men should have equal rights and protections; you can be a skeptic and not value gender equality enough to fight for it. Feminism has absolutely nothing to do with what skepticism is about.

That said…

If you are a member of a skeptical community that wants more women to join and yet does not value (or hold) the belief that men and women should have equal rights and protections enough to fight for them, do not expect more women to join. You don’t have to want more women to join; that’s your decision to make. If that’s not a community you want to have, though, you’re going to have to incorporate feminism into your community’s philosophy.

On the other hand, sexism can be documented by science, at least so far as the scientific method has been adapted to the spheres of psychology, sociology, law and judicial review, educational theory, history, medicine, and other avenues of rigorous research and peer-review. There are, as I’ve said before, thousands of published articles printed in hundreds of academic journals, dozens of which are dedicated to the topic of sex and gender. There is ample evidence of sexism–deliberate and institutional–in every professional endeavor, particularly in the science and technology fields (where the imbalance between men and women is particularly glaring and where the people are already in a data-collection mindset). If it’s accepted as a given–I haven’t done or looked for any research on this, but the idea is bandied about as pseudofact–that the skeptical movement draws heavily from the science and technology fields, then it’s very highly likely that the prejudices and sexism of those fields will be largely repeated in the skeptical movement. Why wouldn’t they be? People don’t view women one way at the lab and a totally completely different way at a skeptical conference or online. And it’s the same people in both places.

Of course it is true that no one has yet published a peer-reviewed, longitudinal study of the prevalence of sexism within the skeptical community. It’s true that women complaining about sexism in skepticism can’t provide that kind of evidence, but that doesn’t make them unscientific with baseless claims and assertions. Alternately, refusing to consider the problem of sexism within skepticism until you have that kind of evidence does not make you scientific. Women making claims of sexism can find empirical data to support their interpretations of the negative experiences they endure because of sexism in skepticism, and they can provide anecdote after anecdote of women reporting shockingly similar events all across the skeptical community, and they can predict with great accuracy what a conversation about sexism with skepticism would sound like (and run the experiment again and again and again). Meanwhile, the sexism deniers (yes, I intend all connotations of that word choice) are the ones who enter the conversation with a hypothesis based on what they want to belief about the skeptical community and hold on tight to that belief no matter they hear or read. They find ways to massage data to fit their predetermined hypothesis instead of going with the simplest explanations, and toss out data that undermines it. Fudging, I believe, is one term for it.

So we’ve got on the one hand people who adhere to the philosophy of feminism who can harness scientific data about sexism in society and make strong correlations to sexism within skepticism, and people who behave as if critiquing feminism as unscientific means something and who fudge data to fit their preexisting hypothesis. I don’t think it’s the feminists who are misusing the scientific method to prove their point.

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If you want more women in skepticism, and the women who are not actively participating in skepticism say that sexism–how it manifests, how it’s handled–is keeping them out of active participation, then you have to do something to address sexism. If it’s your priority to have those women fully participating in your community, then you need to proactively address the problems they designate as impediments.

Ignorance is no longer an excuse. The conversation about sexism has been going on in the skeptical community for a couple of years, minimum (and in science and technology at least twenty years, and in general society for at least fifty). Even the people who don’t agree that sexism is a real problem ought to be by now well-versed in the basic arguments: stop sexually objectifying women, stop assuming there’s a biological reason women aren’t more involved, do more to promote skepticism to women, yadda yadda. What everyone seems to do within the skeptical community, however, is nothing about it, at least not until a woman finds a platform to address the subject and then it turns into a conversation of reactions to instead of preventing against. At least, that’s what most people do. With the exception of a very few men, just about everyone has left sexism in the hands of the women to solve, which is not a great place to leave it if you are trying to get more women to participate in the first place.

For starters, women are such a small number within skepticism that there aren’t really enough of them to speak up as a group or create real consequences for the people who engage in sexist behaviors (consequences like embarrassment and shame, so people will stop doing those things–nobody’s getting booted out). It is very difficult for most women’s individual voices to be heard, and because there are so few women who are leaders within the skeptical movement, them making the same observations and suggestions over and over again starts to sound a lot like they are just particular people with particular problems–possibly unique to their celebrity–and it’s easy to ignore the general atmosphere that affects all the women in favor of focusing on the specific personalities and travel plans of these individual leaders. Furthermore, the bulk of skeptical women are not in active skepticism. If they are vocal and outraged outside of the community very few people can hear them; the ones who wander over just to make their points to an established group of skeptical people who has never encountered them before lack a fair bit of, well, street cred. They certainly face an uphill battle trying to be taken seriously as interlopers with a problem that doesn’t seem to interest most people in the community. Finally, the regular women within skepticism are active participants because they are interested in skeptical things. They get tired of always being the one to have to talk about sexism, especially when the conversations turn out to be such unpleasant events. It’s easier to put up with the crap instead of tackling the crap, and it leaves them more time for other things. And frankly, it gets old. It’s the same old conversation over and over, and they can predict at this point which skeptic that they know is going to say what, and they’ve run the experiment enough times to be confident of the outcome, which so far has been no change. (These are also women you are at risk of losing when they finally do get tired of it altogether.)

Meanwhile, sexism persists and women stay away (and some leave), and despite your wish to have more women actively participating in skepticism you don’t.

Men are going to have to take on this argument themselves. First of all, there are far more many men than women, so even if a fewer percentage of men than women care about the problem there are still more men than women to speak up and do something about it. The group tackling sexism within skepticism could literally double in size (or more!) if everyone who agreed it was a problem acted. Second of all, there’s this unfortunate fact that a lot of people ignore or disagree with statements that women make only to mysteriously hear or agree with the same statements when men make them. (There is proof of this everywhere. Just start looking around.) It’s appalling that this happens in a community so ostensibly proud of valuing the argument and evidence above bias and preconceptions, but it’s another predictable (and demonstrated) outcome that they will do this, and if a man telling other people that sexism is a problem for women in skepticism so the community gets more people to listen, then that means more people will be aware of–and ideally interested in solving–the problem.

But this is the most important thing:

When men start speaking out against sexism in the community, and start taking steps towards educating people about it and eradicating it, it lets women know that they are valued–not merely tolerated–as members. That the community is actually a community that considers the personal needs of the people who are helping further the goals as important to the success of skepticism. People who feel they are part of a functioning community are more invested in its success. It also frees up women from the role of being nags, blamers, crabby harpies, and Generally Unpleasant People for always Making Everyone Else Mad and Airing Dirty Laundry to the Already Dubious Public–a negative role that contributes heavily to negative stereotypes about women, and thus demeans them further within the group–and enables them to be full participants who can dedicate their time to actual skeptical projects. You know that adage,”Many hands make light work”? The more people who are calling out sexism when they see it and doing their best to end it, the faster the chore will go. And if that’s taken care of, you’ll have more time and energy available to the fun stuff.

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Many people in the skeptical movement worry aloud that attempts to increase the power women have within skepticism will decrease the amount of power that men have. They are all for equality, sure, and for “empowering women” just so long as it does not come at the expense of “disempowering men.” It’s all fine and well to help women, but not if it hurts men unfairly, because that would be, well, unfair. These people express these concerns when it is brought up that special efforts should be made to make skepticism a more welcoming environment for women, and when it’s said that skepticism would be better off if more women were participating.

“Empowering women within skepticism” is a vague phrase that refers to a lot of different things. When women have more representation in skepticism (say, half), they will have more power to freely participate. They will be treated as professional equals, they will have equal time to express themselves, their words will be taken with equal consideration, the issues they value will be addressed equally often, they will not be judged by different standards, and they will be shown equal respect as human beings. This kind of environment–in which women as a group are treated as intellectual resources instead of tolerated as guests and groupies–empowers individual women because it enables them to be creative and outspoken, it drastically lessens their fears about being able maintain their personal boundaries (and, sadly, sometimes their safety), and it paves the way for them to take on leadership roles. Right now, most women do not have this power in skepticism, because the skeptical community has not prioritized creating an environment in which women can do these things (in great part because the values of the skeptical community are set by the people in it rather than out of it; yes, it’s a vicious cycle). If women are empowered to participate, skepticism’s membership will increase, and it will have a broader focus that can reach more segments of the general population. This makes the skeptical community stronger.

In short: When the skeptical community truly welcomes women, they will be empowered as a group because they will be fully represented in membership and leadership and can direct skepticism to address their needs too, and they will be empowered as individuals because they will have more opportunities to work as skeptics without being distracted or intimidated by things like hostility and sexism. When they encounter hostility or sexism, the community will support them towards solving the problem instead of attacking them as creating a bigger one.

Which brings up to how empowering women will disempower men. Yes, it’s true. When women as a group are represented within skepticism in equal numbers to their presence in the general population, they will want to spend half of skepticism’s time working on the projects they value. They will want to assume half of the leadership positions and speak for half the time at skeptical meetings, and fill up half the space in the newsletter. Right now, even though they only represent half of the general population, men make more than half the decisions about what projects skepticism should pursue. They hold more than half of the leadership positions and they speak more than half the time at skeptical meetings, and they appear in more than half of the space in the newsletter. When women are fully represented in skepticism and claim their half of the power, the power that men as a group have will be less. They will be disempowered. I don’t know how much control they have over skepticism now (85 percent? 75 percent?*), but they are going to lose a large chunk of it. The amount of their power is going to go down. Probably pretty far down–all the way to half. When women as a group are fully represented in the active skeptical movement, men as a group are only going to be in power of half of it. But that’s OK. They really shouldn’t have more than half of it now (and they really shouldn’t be complaining so vehemently about having to share, but that’s just like my opinion, man).

*I don’t consider the number of female attendees and speakers at TAM to be very representative of the skeptical movement, so please don’t bring up “40%” and “50%” respectively in response to this post, even though the progress TAM has made with improving said numbers is admirable and encouraging and a good model for what other skeptical event organizers should aim for.

But that’s just the power that men as a group will lose. Men as individuals have nothing to worry about. When women as individuals are fully empowered within the skeptical movement, it will not affect the level of individual men’s empowerment at all. They will still be able to address the topics they value, assume leadership positions, express themselves, take risks, and have their personal boundaries respected just like they have always had and just like they have now. Their opportunities to work on skepticism without encountering distractions or hostility will be unchanged, and they will continue to be valued as humans, allies and as skeptical, intellectual partners. They will lose none of these privileges by extending them to women. Unlike the dynamics of two groups of people sharing power (see above), individuals interacting with each other is not a zero-sum game.

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Mentoring is a thing you hear a lot about when it comes to helping people from underrepresented groups gain footholds in organizations, and I’ve only ever heard positive things about mentor relationships when I’ve come across them. I would like to say that establishing mentor programs for women in skepticism would help retain the women who express initial interest in participating, but I don’t really think mentor programs would work for women in skepticism given that the environment isn’t exactly educational, or hierarchical, or the kind of business/training environment in which mentoring programs are usually established. But the ability for women to network within active sexism is very limited because of their low numbers and because the circumstances of how skeptics meet with each other (ie, in nonhierarchical ways). And I don’t really know what else to call it beyond setting up groups within skepticism for women to socialize with each other in, which probably isn’t that practical in real life on a regular basis (for a lot of reasons, from again the low numbers but also time and distance concerns). But mentoring has been shown to help people succeed in certain endeavors, and forming close personal and professional relationships keeps people from walking away from groups, and it seems to me there is something there for skeptics to consider even if I can’t say exactly what.

That said, I think there are definitely roles women could be actively trained to fill, particularly at the local level. There are skeptics groups everywhere, and they are always–ALWAYS–looking for content for their meetings and their events. There are only so many scientists and science writers per city who are available to pop in for free and give talks (and many of those are regular members of the groups), and at least where I live the programs start to repeat themselves. The sad thing about that is that there are so many topics of general interest that would benefit from a skeptical analysis that would likely be good entry points for skeptical novices (and curious members of the non-skeptical public) that are never presented, often because the local leaders just haven’t thought of them. Even when a leader receives a suggestion for an interesting topic, there’s still the problem of who will present it.

Women are tied into their communities in ways that many skeptics, particularly men skeptics, haven’t considered. There are hours of material in each city that would make interesting, thought-provoking lectures and panel discussions, but the people with this raw knowledge don’t necessarily have the experience needed for making presentations and moderating panels. It’s not a matter of overcoming stage fright; it’s a matter of knowing what kind of handouts/slides to prepare, how to pace a talk, how to handle questions from the audience, what kind of references to provide, and how to market their presentation idea to skeptical group leaders and conference organizers.

These are easily learned skills. Easily learned, but not very instinctive. Making a concerted effort to teach women how to organize and give a skeptical presentation would make a lot more women feel like they could successfully share their knowledge with their group. It would not take much effort for a skeptical group to set up a training workshop for women* and walk them through the steps of planning to presentation. You could attract women from your community who have never set foot inside your skeptical group meetings before, too, and it would be very easy for your programming chair to work with these women to set the topics for the next run of meetings well in advance instead of scrambling all the time for speakers. Even better, when these women make their presentations, they will bring their friends and relatives (new potential skeptics), and they will forge relationships between skepticism and parts of the community you didn’t know intersected with it. Most important, you will send the message that you value the knowledge and experience that these women have to share–even the non-scientific/technological/paranormal/religious knowledge and experience that normally doesn’t get air time–and that you are willing to invest in their talent by helping them hone their leadership skills. Not a lot of women skeptics hear that message. You are far more likely to retain women members when you offer them that kind of opportunity to really get involved.

To use a popular business cliche, it’s a win-win situation.

*Yes, it would be very easy for a skeptical group to set up a training workshop for women and men, too, but there are already plenty of men speakers and if you are trying to get women more involved then it’s best to focus on your target demographic. There is no reason why you can’t offer more than one workshop.

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