A big reason cited by women for not participating actively in skepticism is a lack of empathy for their position. They’ll be asked by people within the skeptical community what is keeping them from participating, but when they state their reasons, they are argued with or ignored. Consider this common example: Women say they don’t like to go to skeptical business meetings (particularly conferences) because they spend as much fending off sexual come-ons as they do learning about skeptical ideas. They consider it a problem for a number of reasons:
- It’s distracting. They invested valuable time and/or money to hear a speaker and mingle with professionals, and every time someone hits on them they miss a chance to do that.
- It’s insulting. The people who approach them at skeptical business meetings to hit on them care more about their vaginas than their brains.
- It’s hostile. Being hit on once by a stranger in a place you thought was professional is bad enough, but when multiple men come up to you for the same reason, in an environment of mostly men, you start to wonder if there are any allies who would take your side if things went sour. (And things do go sour.)
- It’s boring. The people who troll professional settings to hit on women are not clever, or suave, or charismatic, or creative, or unique, even if they think they’ve stumbled on this great idea that will set them apart from the other men who are trying to hit on women. It’s all just the same old thing, and it’s not entertaining to be the audience for it.
The degree to which people object to this behavior being labeled as a deterrent to women’s active participation in skepticism varies, but it’s rare that a woman can say this and not be argued with. Usually, people arguing with her become so obstinate and tangled up in their nets of logic and rationality they had hoped to snare her with (for the goal of her recanting, I guess) that a person who agrees with the woman will tell them to just be more empathetic and see it from her point of view.
Which often leads to someone looking up and then posting a definition from an online dictionary:
2. the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
Oh, you mean empathy, they’ll say. I completely empathize with those women. In fact, I would love it if women hit on me all the time and wherever I go. I’d even be flattered if gay guys did it. It’s flattering and exciting. Then they turn around and demand “empathy” from the women who aren’t sensitive to how rarely they get hit on by women, and how it’s so hard to be a man in a culture that expects them to make the first move.
This is not empathy. This is wishful thinking. Not once do those people sit and imagine how it feels for those women to be distracted, insulted, and bored in a hostile environment. They haven’t made an attempt to experience those feelings at all. They have not sat and imagined how they feel when they show up at an event with one goal in mind and people play tag team the whole time they are there, to the extent that they have to spend as much time asking to be left alone as they go working on their goal. No, what they do is hear “So many guys want to bang that woman!” and think “I wish that many women wanted to bang me!” and they tell her she has no cause for complaints. They’ve projected their fantasy onto her, and then criticize her for not being titillated by it. They continue by asserting that most men share this fantasy, which does not sound like empathy. It makes attending professional meetings dominated by men scary.
As much as I hate to make my example about how constant sexual propositioning is a problem for women seem stronger by providing an example of how it hurts men, too, I think it’s fair to point to Hollywood (and other) celebrity men who are the unwilling recipients of demands for their attention all the time. If a man hearing a woman complaining about too much attention at skeptical business meetings can’t empathize with her, maybe he can empathize with them. Celebrities are hounded by individuals beyond all rational levels of toleration. They are harassed day in and day out for no other reason that they stand out in a crowd. They receive threats by mail and in person, and the only good thing about it is that they tend to have enough money to hire people to protect them, who can act as buffers between them and the unwanted attention they receive. No empathetic person says they’d love to be in the position of a celebrity among the paparazzi; no one blames them for trying to eat calmly at a restaurant with their family without being harassed (regardless of intention). Of course not! Those are just people, trying to get their work done like anyone else, asking for a bit of privacy and common courtesy as they go about their day. After all, Tom Hanks is just a person.
If you can empathize with Tom Hanks regardless of whether he’s attempting to participate in your skeptical community and help you meet your skeptical goals, you can empathize with the skeptical women who feel barraged at male-dominated skeptical events by reminders that they’d fit right in if they’d put a little out. They’re people as much any male celebrity is. And they are people you know.