Oh, skeptics! Always wanting more women to participate actively, never wanting to do much about it. There are a lot of reasons people don’t want to do much about it, and not all of them are pure meanness. (Only one of them is pure meanness.) Sure, there are a lot of people with psychological barriers to addressing sexism directly (which means the best case scenario for most people is that they’ve been enabling it), and there are people who wish the community were already well-balanced but can’t figure out what to do. Because starting conversations about it can start flame wars (and who wants to go through that?), and because most people don’t meet as skeptics except in artificial environments established by skeptical leaders (in person and online), there is a real hesitancy to shake things up. People don’t like to go to other people’s houses and pick fights; they don’t like to go to other people’s events and argue with a conference agenda that has been set probably for more than six months or go to a website and complain about the tone when it’s obvious that it’s a volunteer effort. Women in particular do not want to appear in a space where they are a minority and start speaking up about what they don’t like. When they aren’t outright told to like it or leave it, they are reminded that their feelings are wrong and ganged up on. (They usually leave.)
Women wish that leaders would make this a bigger priority, but nobody likes to tell skeptical leaders–very few of whom have no day job–what to do. Leaders make huge investments in time and resources so that skeptics have places to gather, and no one wants to seem ungrateful. Also, leaders generally tell other people what to do, and though it can go both ways between leaders and followers, it often doesn’t when most people are generally satisfied. But leaders can’t know everything, and because they are mostly men they see as normal mostly things that men like, and because women are underrepresented in the community and in leadership, problems caused by sexism do not get very much top-down attention. And because leaders seem not to care much about it, the skeptical community as a group seems not to care much about it either.
This is not a condemnation of leaders. Here are some very ordinary reasons skeptic leaders may not very often directly address sexism in the ranks, even if they care about it:
- They don’t perceive it.
- They don’t realize how common it is.
- There are buffers between the leaders and the skeptics, maybe moderators who do all the hands-on work of running a discussion board, or staff between the directors of organizations and their membership base or clientele.
- They think they are already doing something about it.
- It’s not a priority.
- They tried to do something about it, but weren’t effective.
- They want to do something about it, but are already stretched so thin.
Each one of these circumstances is very difficult to change from the outside. Waiting for leaders to overcome the obstacles that stand between them and solving the sexism problem means that skepticism is going to be awash in sexism for a long time. The thing is, no one has to wait for leaders to act before they can act. Women know this; the women who want to feel more comfortable actively participating in skepticism have been trying raise awareness and suggest effective strategies to implement change. But these women are very often accused–in no uncertain terms–of falling prey to emotions, causing trouble, making skepticism look bad, and derailing the skeptical movement. They are labeled rogue skeptics with non-problems who don’t appreciate how good skepticism has made their lives already, and when leaders (I’m looking at you, Richard Dawkins) don’t express this outright they almost never speak up to defend the women. And everyone else in the skeptical movement takes that as confirmation that the women who complain are outsiders, and that they (everyone else) can be content with what skepticism is right now.
But no one has to think that. Just because leadership hasn’t given explicit permission to start addressing sexism doesn’t meant that skeptics shouldn’t. The onus for change is on everyone. Everyone. The leadership group of skeptics is probably the tiniest group of people in the whole community, and although they act as lodestones around which everyone can gather they do not participate in the community like everyone else does. They can’t know what it’s like to be Average Skeptic because they are not. It is very beneficial when leaders take to heart the importance of speaking out against sexism, but it is not required. If you are waiting for there to be an official skeptical manifesto to eradicate sexism and a call for all noses to put themselves to the proverbial grindstones before you do your part to eliminate sexism, you are perpetuating sexism by enabling it.
Stop waiting for your leaders to make addressing sexism or recruiting women a priority. If you care about this issue, and if you care about the women that sexism, you can start advocating against sexism today. It will make a difference.