I consider myself both a scientist and a skeptic, but that seems to be inadequate to talk about my beliefs. That is because my profession and positions are due to underlying values, which I have said can bring one to skepticism rather than it being some valueless oasis. One of those values is a sense of fairness, which is probably innate to one degree or another in most all people. There is evidence that a sort of egalitarianism isn’t universal, but it is a widespread value. Part of that understanding of what is fair is looking for injustice/unfairness, and I have to think it is something that skeptics also think about to some degree. Sometimes it is thinking about the idea of fairness when it comes to journalism or teaching “both theories”, but realizing it is a dodge from the point that one side does have all the facts on their side and the other doesn’t know the difference from a sloth and a dinosaur (really, start watching this video for the first five minutes, especially starting around minute four; so much face-palm).
So I can understand that the concept of fairness is easy to abuse. However, it only makes sense that is abused when it is giving preference to something that shows no sign of deserving it. Which brings me to the issue of sexism, especially in the sciences and in the skeptics movement. I have already noted a study showing how women were hired or helped less than men among science grad students, and there have been too many kerfuffles in the atheist and skeptic movement to count; just go to Freethought Blogs and you will see another case of either someone pointing out something sexist being said by a leader in the movement or dealing with the complaints of those that call themselves men’s rights activists (MRAs). While some feminists may not express themselves in the best way (or perhaps more often, have had their words easily twisted), there has been much a call for realizing the problems in the movement when it comes to how women are treated and how prominent they are.
And fortunately, there are ways to talk about the extent and reality of the problem using science. There is a great article up by Jamie Bernstein where she creates a simple game-theory model of what an egalitarian situation appears compared to one with sexist attitudes and how that would appear in the real world. Basically, the model would bring about two points: if sexism was a force in the workplace or in deciding on leadership or other positions of merit, the average quality of the people in that position will be lower than a more egalitarian state, and in fact the women will be better on average than the average group with sexist attitudes. As she states:
In any grouping that is supposed to consist of the most qualified people and has a large gender imbalance, if that gender imbalance was caused by institutionalized sexism either in the choice of individuals or the admittance of individuals into the pool of candidates (for example, discouraging women from studying in STEM fields), then the women in the group will be more qualified on average than the men in the group. Additionally, rival groups with more equal representation of women will be more qualified on average than rival groups with fewer women.
So, this is the hypothesis from the simple model. And there are studies that show it is real. Bernstein’s examples include Fortune 500 companies, hedge funds, and previous US congresses. In all these cases, there is a lack of women in high positions (CEOs, congressional seats, etc.), where there is more equality in numbers in high positions they do better, and women did better on average than the general coalitions that had their gender bias.
It really does make sense. If you have explicit or implicit sexist ideas, you are going to undervalue the abilities of one group (or exaggerate the abilities of the opposite group), and your choices of who will be best will exclude some of the best talents. This means that policies like affirmative action are not there so less qualified people can take the positions of more qualified people, but to overcome the epidemic of stereotyping and actually get the best talents where they belong.
The same ought to be true for the skeptic movement, and with more reasons still. If we want the best speakers, then you want to have it more representative and diverse; otherwise you are actually lowering the quality of the group, not increasing it as the more naive would jump to think. But there is another point worth mentioning. The skeptic movement wants to, and needs to, grow. If your movement is not representing well half the potential population, that is a huge hindrance to its growth. Similarly the point can be made when it comes to races or income levels. Unless there is something that actually makes some group less capable in the tasks being asked for, a less diverse group will be less capable and less able to grow. (Harriet Hall, who is not a feminist, notes that studies showing gender differences in certain intellectual abilities are mixed at best, so if there is such a difference, it is almost certainly too small to explain what we see in the world.)
I have seen this in action when it comes to attracting new members to the Secular Student Alliance. When tabling for the group here, it was significantly helpful in attracting female members by having at least one woman there. Having topics that included women’s issues was also helpful (and it didn’t keep guys away either). If we present atheism/skepticism as “a guy thing” as Michael Shermer poorly conveyed it (watch the video at the 12 minute mark), then we aren’t going to grow the movement with women, and creating that diversity doesn’t happen on its own. Part of fixing the lack of representation is realizing it is a problem, and part of it is some level of sexism at least for a minority of people in the movement (I hope it’s not that great in extent).
What problems are there? There is the stereotype that science, engineering, building, deep thinking are more guy things, so there is a gender gap in STEM careers and researchers. There is also the significant problem of objectification of women, something that men almost never have to deal with by comparison. It seems to be a significant issue for some that call themselves skeptics/atheists, and Rebecca Watson has perhaps gotten the worst of it (though I don’t really want to measure this competition; Greta Christina, Jen Mccreight, and many other women in the movement willing to speak up have gotten plenty thrown at them). Recent examples include Watson sharing this video about the objectification of women (which I suggest you watch):
For that, she received some amazing harassment, including being reminded that she is an object and one to be raped. Now, I noticed that people like Todd Akin are not members of the atheist or skeptic community, so it is strange to see even worse behavior and statements from the members of a group that is supposed to be about rationality, science, and empiricism.
I’m not posting this ultimately to quickly fix the problem. What I want to do here is help it be realized that there is a problem, and it is a fact seen from anecdotes to studies, all fitting what is expected given that there is something wrong in how the community thinks about and treats women. If enough people do realize that there is something wrong, the sooner we can reflect and do better rather than just dig our own holes and the grave for this movement (see, for example, how Thunderf00t has done that in his diatribes against feminism; there is also some summary here). To help people see there is an issue, consider signing this petition if that’s still possible, talk about the issue in a measured way with your group and its leaders, encourage conferences to have more women and minority speakers as well as have an anti-harassment policy and enforce it, do not condone misogynistic behavior in others, and, of course, think about your own interactions and see if you are doing something that stereotypes or objectifies women and minorities.
Perhaps not all the arguments or claims of feminists or feminism will stand up to scrutiny (and feminism has changed with time because of what could and could not be defended), but the discussion needs to be reasoned, measured, and most of all aware that there is a problem to resolve.