Women speaking up about the sexism they experience in skepticism has caused some pretty tense conversations. Women don’t particularly like bringing up things that bother them, or explaining to people–some of whom are friends–why they have merely tolerated or actually feared what seems like perfectly ordinary interactions from other points of view. These conversations bring up emotions of all kinds, ranging from shame and embarrassment to anger and defensiveness on all sides. People do not like to hear that they’ve been hurting women, however inadvertently, and women do not like to relive even the most benign unpleasant experience.
It’s understandable that people–especially the people on the receiving end of the news that a woman has experienced sexism at their collective hands–would not want to have this conversation, and might even employ some strategies to deflect it. One such strategy is to turn criticism back onto the criticizer, by complaining not about what the woman is saying but instead on how she has chosen to say it. Instead of actually addressing the woman’s concerns, they turn it around and say that she could have said it better. Sure, they get why she’s mad, but maybe they tell her she’s just not polite enough when she is addressing them. Maybe she shouldn’t speak too generally about a problem only some people–not them–are causing, and be more careful not to lump the innocent with the guilty. Maybe she should have taken up her problem in person with the people who caused it before making a video about it on YouTube. Maybe it would have sounded more like a legitimate complaint if she hadn’t been friendly earlier with the people who caused the problem.
Sure, sure, what the woman had to say was important, but no one is going to listen to her until she’s been schooled in a little bit of diplomacy. They tell her to clean up the rough edges, practice a little more gentleness, then try again. What’s that, they ask, when she restates her message less politely and adds another suggestion to its tail? She doesn’t like being told what to do? Well, she just told other people what to do, so now they can logically write her off as an ignorable, tactless hypocrite.
This kind of dismissal is not productive, and it is very provocative. Ignoring what a woman is actually saying and reminding her how women are supposed to act if they want attention will prove her point that she experiences sexism. And falling back on the excuse that her delivery was so inadequate you couldn’t understand her point fools no one, because you’ve demonstrated that you understood her by the way you structure your helpful suggestions. All you are doing by blowing her off is making the problem bigger, and more or less guaranteeing that the next time you hear about it she’ll be less diplomatic on purpose. She might even be less forgiving of past errors.
If a woman decides in advance to ask you for help with her presentation skills, or solicits advice on the best way to bring up a sensitive topic, by all means advise her all you want about tone and timing and audience and medium. If she speaks out before consulting you, and you deem that she is too emotional or aggressive with her delivery, it’s probably because the topic is very, very important and she cares a whole lot about it, and thus you ought to make even more effort to hear her through your annoyance or defensiveness. Skeptics are rational, logical people, after all; keep your head and you can probably help women solve their problems. They might even start to consider people in the skeptical movement allies.