There’s a lively discussion going on at Skepchick regarding women in skepticism. More precisely, women in skepticism as things went at TAM, which was discussed in this week’s Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe via interview. Here is the SGU forum thread about that episode, which contains a lot of discussion about the interview.
I did attend TAM this year, and do happen to be female. There were basically two issues brought up in the interview: subtle sexism, and Bill Prady’s speech.
I’ll get Bill Prady out of the way first. He gave the keynote speech, and in it he mentioned that guys should try an experiment: if a woman comes up to them in a bar and asks what their sign is, half the time they should tell her she has pretty eyes, and half the time they should tell her why astrology is crap, and they should see which yields better results. There were some women at TAM that found the comment a bit offensive. I personally thought it was a hilarious observation, because I felt he was saying that women, whether we believe in astrology or not, would rather receive a compliment than a condescending lecture. I think that’s spot on; we’re not morons, we don’t like being lectured, and it’s not appropriate in the social context. I obviously took the comment differently from how other people did, and that’s quite okay.
Generally, I was a bit put off by the clips from The Big Bang Theory just because I’m tired to death of women always being the believers in these shows. I didn’t necessarily feel that the female character was portrayed as stupid, just as non-skeptical. And that, I could do without. But whatever. I don’t watch the show anyway.
That’s out of the way, now.
The more interesting – and much more important – point of the interview was if there’s a sort of subtle sexism existing in the skeptic community, and if so, what can we do about it.
Honestly, I couldn’t tell you one way or another. I haven’t noticed anything generally myself, and I’ve never been made to feel uncomfortable at TAM or other skeptical events. Part of this is because the Denver contingent of skeptics is fabulous. Part of this may also be because I’m a chubby, nerdy girl that refuses to wear anything fancier than jeans and a t-shirt, so it’s very possible that I get dismissed out of hand by the predatory assholes. I’m quite okay with that.
I did definitely notice that TAM was very short on the people of color (POC from here on out) and women speakers department. Dr. Novella did explain that however as partially just being that the POC/female speakers who were invited (other than Jennifer Ouellette and Harriet Hall) couldn’t attend due to scheduling conflicts. That’s very reasonable and something that can definitely happen with conventions. Also, there could be the effect that there are more white dude speakers to choose from right now than there are POC/women, for many reasons. (Some of said reasons being quite bad and worrisome.)
Women made up around 30% of the attendees of TAM this year, which is a fantastic amount of growth in attendance. I think that’s very cool. It shows that more women are getting interested in the movement, which I think is a good thing.
So, was there sexism? I don’t know. I don’t think people were being sexist; I certainly didn’t meet anyone who was. But individuals being sexist jerks isn’t the same as a general situation being influenced by subtle or ingrained sexism, which was really the point, I think.
What the question comes down to is simply this: are women being excluded somehow, for whatever reason? Skepticism started out male dominated, and is still fairly male dominated, though women are making inroads. So, are we fighting [hard enough] to be inclusive? Are their factors at work that will still leave women feeling like this is an unwelcoming sausage fest? I think that’s the sort of sexism that was being discussed in the podcast. And I think those are questions that should definitely be aired and considered, whatever the answer turns out to be. In general, society is still quite sexist in many ways, and that may still have it’s subtle influences on skeptical society. If so, then we should know the how and why. If not, then we should make sure we’re not prematurely patting ourselves on the back.
I think that’s definitely a good thing to investigate and a good discussion to have, particularly since many of the men of the skeptical movement have stated that they want to see women more involved. (Or have less proactively bemoaned the fact that women “just aren’t interested in science/skepticism” without examining why.)
One thing that’s really struck me in the discussion is how hostile some people are being about it. There’s a distinct flavor of “I’m a skeptic, I’m enlightened, how dare you say I’m sexist” coming from some people. First of, no one has accused anyone else of being sexist. But second off, that umbrage is indicative of something else I think skeptics need to take a good hard look at. There’s a level of arrogance that can come with labeling oneself as a skeptic. You get to be cooler than those silly believers who buy nonsense. I think that arrogance is showing up here as well, in a rather ugly way. People consider themselves to be enlightened individuals, and are going on the attack because they think it’s been suggested that they may not be.
I think the people who are getting nasty need to take a long look at themselves. If you’re an enlightened skeptic, the way to prove that is not to attack someone that disagrees with you, or has an opinion you don’t like. It’s to be the “better man” and rationally discuss.
“How dare you call me a sexist, you reverse-discriminating feminazi!!!!”
“I disagree. This is why.”