Let’s go from the specific to the universal today.
The Skeptics Guide to the Universe is a podcast and panel of skeptics “dedicated to promoting critical thinking, reason, and the public understanding of science through online and other media.” I don’t know about the demographics of the listening audience, but a cursory stroll through the discussion board audience via threads on the forum reveals that by far the majority of posters are men. A stroll through the blogosphere reveals that there are far more skeptics who are men than women, to the point that the conversation frequently revolves around how to involve more women. (Hence this blog.) A recent uproar reveals that it is such a point of concern that too few women have registered for The Amazing Meeting 2012 that the president of the hosting organization (James Randi Educational Foundation) attributed this decline to women bloggers discussing the unfriendly environment women encounter in real-life and online communities. In fact, one specific woman blogger, Rebecca Watson–SGU panelist and podcaster–was named as especially responsible and she has decided to sit out this event to make a point.
Because it must be the women warning other women about potential opportunities for personal and online harassment who scare the women away (and maybe it is) and not at all the fault of the people (usually men) harassing women in person and online. Or the behavior of skeptical leaders big and small that sets the tone for what kind of behaviors general members can engage in, how they will be tolerated, and what women can expect.
For example, the moderators of the SGU Forums feel free to fight against the women who are trying to make skepticism a more welcoming place for women, and so the forum itself has become a place where people can go to fight women who are trying to reduce misogyny and sexism in the skeptical community. And you get gems of threads like this one…
…which turns into a screed against Rebecca Watson in which at least two moderators (one is the administrator) participate, and includes commentary like this:
You used to be right all the time, back when you were a skeptic who promoted feminism. But lately, now that you’re a feminist who targets inequalities in skepticism, you have been harder and harder for us folks who are still in it for the woo-bashing to follow and agree with.
I hypothesize that you see it as personal evolution. But for those of us who haven’t evolved the way you have, we see it as bridge-burning. You are burning bridges, and then you bad-mouth the people who didn’t follow you across the bridge. It should come as no surprise that the members of this board perceive you the way they — we — do. In fact, it would be irrational to expect otherwise.
(Emphasis mine. Except for the “we” inside the em-dashes. Those italics are in the original. Must fully disclose, you know.)
So you’ve got your head moderator–your board administrator, in fact–letting women know that it’s OK to be a feminist, but if you are the kind of feminist who burns bridges by targeting inequalities and criticizing sexism and misogyny (the bad-mouthing), you cannot expect support. Your board administrator emphasizes that he will not support you. That it would be irrational (ergo, not worthy of a skeptic) to support these feminists and that women should not be surprised when their attempts at eliminating inequality make them unwelcome in this skeptical community.
When you have moderators and board administrators saying these things, it actually should come as no surprise to you when your podcast-affiliated forum becomes a place to say things like women who feel strongly enough about these positions must be mentally ill, that women should expect harassment because it’s natural for men to do it, that women who have abortions are executioners, that women having acid thrown in their faces is a topic to mock, that that false rape accusations are rampant (7/1/12, posted by the board admin) (NOTE: Since writing this post, I’ve started documenting the new ones that I encounter, as of July 11, 2012, you know, for fun, and because I am a bitter shrew with too much time on my hands.), harassment policies hurt conference organizers (7/3/12, posted by the board admin), that rape is sometimes funny (7/10/12), that there’s a thread just of women’s boobs for people to look at (and not the boobs of forum members posted willingly, either–just random boobs from women who probably did not give their permission to have those pictures posted by those people in that online space), that it doesn’t really matter if there are women in the movement or not because they treat all people as equal and it’s offensive to men to say that women should be recruited. And when I send email to the panel pointing out the discrepancy between this atmosphere and their stated desire for more women to participate, and pointing out how moderation creates this discrepancy, I get back in writing from the panel that they do not expect their moderators to take neutral stances (and that requiring them to do so is the opposite of what the goals are for the forum), that allowing conversations like this makes it “worth the time” of active participants, that they believe the forum moderators and participants do “a very good job of policing themselves and keeping conversations fair and respectful.” That if I don’t find this to be the case, I have to take it up with these very same moderators, but that the panel in no way endorse an anti-woman stance. Which leaves me wondering if they even know what an anti-woman stance looks like.
If you are wondering where the women in your community are, you have to look at things like forum content, like moderation policy, like tone. Like who you designate to act on your behalf, with your approval. Who represents you. If this is the SGU Forum, it reflects the SGU Podcast, and there’s no way around it. Their name is on it. They link to it from their website. They defend their moderators. If there are anti-woman aspects of this place, they are responsible for it. It’s hard to take seriously conversations about the lack of women participating in skepticism when all this trouble is playing out in general discussion on this public forum and they say that’s all aligned with their goals for the forum in the first place.
Maybe the forum isn’t a very important or significant corner of the skeptical community, and therefore the hassle of managing it differently is outweighed by the benefits and giving some fringe group a place to be a fringe group doesn’t seem like a very big risk. You could make the case that only a hundred people or so visit there regularly. But you could also make the case that there are 11,000 members (as the board administrator has made before). Maybe 11,000 is also a small fringe group of skeptics in the large scheme of things, and still is no big deal. But maybe that’s a lot of people watching this place, and maybe judging it, and maybe questioning its purpose, and maybe even questioning the motives of a panel that keeps it in place. Maybe it is fun for some people. But what does that say about those people? And if pleasing them is just as important as welcoming women to your community, maybe welcoming women isn’t very important, in which case you could save yourself a lot of controversy and stop talking about the discrepancy between men and women skeptics as if it’s something that matters to you. Or maybe if you don’t want this dubious association between the podcast and the forum, you can hand the forum off to a third party to run under a different name or shut it down all together.*
*Save your breath. That is not censorship. Don’t even bring it up.
And maybe, Gentle Reader, this applies to another forum, or blog, or in-person event, or membership group that you are responsible for, and you can go to the universal from this specific example of what not to do if your goals are to make women feel welcome in your community.
Addendum, June 19
After a flurry of activity, the SGU Forum moderators have decided to keep all the naked pictures, albeit add one more level of hassle to accessing it. It’s not because they want to make the board more welcoming to women; it’s because they don’t want the naked stuff to be so easy to use against them. And they still don’t want women around who are going to “browbeat” men about inequalities and stuff. Threads here and here. This was a very thorough demonstration of how to uphold the status quo. It is an example of wanting to not appeal to most women but not wanting most women to criticize them for it. I predict there will be no change in demographics of this forum in the future, but they did admit changing the demographics was not their goal.
The new section is described as below:
Explicit (NSFW) Access
READ THIS: Explicit (NSFW) Access is a membergroup that will give you access to the Explicit (NSFW) subforum, a place which contains content with adult, objectionable, and politically incorrect themes. By clicking on “Join Group”, you acknowledge that you understand the nature of this subforum, and will not discuss this subforum with anyone outside of the subforum itself. The contents of this subforum do not reflect the views or opinions of SGU, SGU Forums moderators or administrators, or any of their affiliates or sponsors.
So it’s got all the adult themes you want, plus a promise to not discuss it with anyone outside of the section, so that no one outside the discussion board can find out about it because they don’t want to look bad. They don’t say what will happen if you do. And the last line about how it doesn’t reflect the views of the SGU podcast, the forum moderators or administrators is a bunch of crap, because the SGU podcast lends its name to the whole enterprise and it was the forum moderators and administrators who cooked the scheme up. And at this point their sponsors and affiliates are blameless, but once they find out about the subforum, they’re all complicit too. It’s a ridiculous sentence.
And it’s totally OK for me to say this outside of that subforum, because I did not join the group, so the restriction doesn’t apply.
Addendum, September 18
I was alerted a while ago via Twitter from an SGU forum member about moderation changes, so I went and scoped it out. Forum announcement and discussion here. The new moderators assure the community that they liked the way the moderation had been handled so far and were aiming to keep it that way. And that seems to be true, because in that thread a conversation popped up about swear words (and then was split off into another forum section here, and whether it was worse to make jokes about women posters’ pussies than to use the word fuck. Transitions are always rocky, and I’m sure the moderators and community members will adapt to the change pretty smoothly, and everyone seems happy enough, and they still may someday entertain the idea of making the forum environment friendlier to women, and that is all I have to say about that.
For now… (Does that sound ominous? I pronounced it ominously in my head when I typed it. But that’s probably it.)