Getting Women Interested in Science and Skepticism


The other day I had re-tweeted a link to a page from CERN about how to get more women interested in and becoming science-literate and scientists. (HT to Sean Carroll on Facebook.) Some of those suggestions should have an almost immediate effect. For example, making applications for jobs or grad study positions anonymous because there is a bias against female applicants; even a female name provided a bias against an applicant against a male-named applicant with equivalent credentials. I talked about the study this was based on before, and the results were quite frightening. If this anonymous method of applications is used, that should undo this bias very quickly and not keep out qualified women from the world of science. This isn’t affirmative action or anything similar, it is removing a bias from coming into play.

Other suggestions will be more long-term, such as changes the environment, providing mentors and role models, and having discussions about gender issues in the sciences. I’m glad to say that the female grad students in the physics department here at OSU have started to do just that. Last week they provided an exhibit about gendered toys and media, especially things like what video games and Lego have done. Fortunately, it wasn’t just a bunch of displays, but the women involved were making conversation with those that came in. They had done their own research into these topics, be it about board games or My Little Pony. They knew a number of things I didn’t, and I knew a few things they didn’t, so a lot of good exchanges of information was happening. For example, is a character like Lara Croft overall good or bad for women (strong, intelligent adventurer vs. sex object)? Is there something odd with a game like Guess Who? having 80% men because women are a different group like people with glasses (so men are the default and women the aberration?) So, there was plenty to consider and discuss. (I fear that I may have to watch said ponies, and perhaps become… a Brony.) There was also some of the points that were brought up by Anita Sarkeesian with video games (which I have also posted on in the past).

So there is some excellent work being done on that front. When it comes to the world of skepticism and secularism, there are also good things happening there. Conferences for women and skepticism have been created, and there have been excellent talks about the relationship between the freethought movement’s and the feminist movement’s history. But as many have noted, there are some really terrible things happening on that front as well.

At least at the level of the Internet, there has been significant trolling, harassing, and threatening of women and other feminist voices in the skeptic and atheist movement/community. There have been calls by respected people in the movement to cut this out and bring shame on those that do these things, including by people such as Matt Dillahunty and Richard Carrier (most recently in a talk you can watch here). However, a look into the comments will make you think less well of humanity. The most common complaint I see is how those like Carrier or PZ Myers or Rebecca Watson are censoring dissent, or creating a cult/echo chamber, etc. There seems to be a lot of worry about being able to speak freely and have critical discussion.

However, those are not good excuses, and really it’s just rhetoric getting in the way of keeping the status quo. If you are someone that either produce hateful statements or doesn’t see them as a problem, then you are not someone that is going to be good in producing a community. Communities don’t work if abuse of community members is acceptable or simply tolerated. This isn’t to say insults are not allowed, but they shouldn’t be there instead of argument or discussion. And threats should never, in any case or context, be tolerated. There is no excuse for saying they don’t matter.

Let’s just consider this in the most Machiavellian of ways. One goal of the skeptic/atheist/humanist movement is to grow. Half the population is women, so you will want to attract women to your movement in order to grow. If you allow a community where harassment or threats to women are tolerated, then women will not be comfortable being involved (as noted here). The same principal exists for races relations: if you have no problems allowing people to make racist remarks or talk about tying black people to the backs of trucks, you are not going to get anyone from the African American community interested in your group. If you want to grow your group in new or underrepresented demographics, you have to care about them. You have to actually give a shit about how other people feel and perceive you and your movement.

Now that is if you are just thinking in terms of numbers. There is also the point that people who make threats and harass are not good people. Do you like to be harassed? Probably not. You think less of such people, tell them to get a life, etc. So if you do the same or tolerate it happening to other people, that makes you callous. And why do I want to be involved with a movement with a crowd like that?

Is it censorship to block out or down-vote comments that are sexist/harassing/threatening? Broadly, yes. Is that wrong? No. Why? Because while the law allows you to say just about anything you want, you are under less than no obligation to listen to such garbage. Tell me, is it evil censorship for atheists to make fun of statements by Pat Robertson when he saying something profoundly stupid or callous (i.e. the earthquake in Haiti was deserved because of a pack with the Devil)? Seems like a rather appropriate reaction to Robertson, so long as we are also pointing out how bad his statements are. How about the general disgust people had because of the vile things said by Todd Akin during the election cycle last year? Was that undeserved censorship or a reasonable response to a sexist, medieval attitude?

So when people claim that harassers are being censored, that female bloggers need to “grow a pair” (oh, sexist language to attack people working against sexism, how fucking ironic), this is just a bad argument. Being told not to do that, that such comments are not welcome, is not the same thing as silencing dissenting opinions. It’s a matter of distancing yourself from people you do not want to be involved with because they have proven to be terrible people. If you think otherwise, then why are you not hanging out with Akin and Robertson?

As for the fear of forming a cult, that is hyperbole, which is again trying to maintain the status quo. When Richard Carrier said that Atheism+ had the values of reasonableness, compassion, and personal integrity, and if you don’t agree to those values you are not part of A+, a regular shit-storm erupted. Somehow forcing people to have these values was to make Atheism+ a cult, a Stalinist regime to force conformity, and so on. Because, as we all know, Stalin was big on reason and compassion. When I look at those three values, I don’t see membership conditions, I see the sorts of values I want in the people I hang out with. These are rather universal values worth having. When I go to Convergence meetings, which has atheists and Christians, I see these values in place, and I love going there to discuss and just plain hang out–even though I certainly disagree about the God and Jesus questions. If I know someone that isn’t reasonable or has no self-integrity, I don’t want to associate with them. Am I censoring them or forcing my values on them, or am I just trying to not hang out with assholes?

Now, I have no idea how problematic these issues are in the population for the atheist movement, but I am fearing that it is larger than many in the Atheism+ movement realize. In the sciences, as noted, there is a bias against women, even though the scientists tend to be the more socially liberal bunch; in the tech world, women who complain about sexism in the workplace and rape threats get fired from their jobs because they reported it;  sex assault hotline workers make rape jokes in public fora (namely Reddit); when police officials call cases when cops sexually harass women “customer service” in order to blow off the charges; when even after calling for people to notice a down-voting campaign against a video promoting A+ values, there is still a tremendous amount of negative-vs-positive votes (in this case, Carrier’s video linked above) and where the more outrageous comments are the move up-voted; this all indicates to me a large population issue, and one that isn’t going away any time soon.

So I fear that both CERN and A+ have a significant up-hill battle to fight. I am afraid that the issues of sexism and how to respond to sexist statements and threats are society-wide, and it hasn’t helped the fact that it’s the old boys’ clubs that have to change to better accommodate a shifting demographic. That is, unless you are okay having a primarily white, rich, male population; that diversity is something you don’t like. In which case, who is really trying to censor whom?

Let’s get this straight right now: harassment and threats are an attempt to silence people. This is the real censorship. Down-voting or removing such comments is not the problem to be fixed; the problem is the active campaigns to drown out dissenting voices that stand up for values that descent humans ought to share. If you cannot see that, you need to seriously rethink how you interact with other human beings.

But how to combat these issues? How to we create the environments that will be welcoming to both genders and all races? It is going to need people speaking up for these values. Holding onto the idea of gender equality silently will not be sufficient to change things, especially if the noisy people are on the wrong side of the issue or simply keep the status quo. It means making it socially expensive to be a jerk towards different genders or races or any other subgroup of people (gays, transsexuals, the disabled, etc.). If you cannot conform to the humanist values of reasonableness, compassion, and personal integrity (again, these are humanist values, not something cooked up by A-plussers; just compare them to the values stated here), then you will not represent the moral codes that will advance the cause. And if you think putting down harassment, threats, and bad stereotypes is “censorship”, that this constitutes “discussion” and “reasonable dissent”, then I have no interest in you.

We need to think about how we are dealing with these issues. We will find all sorts of excuses for why something said by some feminist or other disliked group said. I had to rethink about the complaints towards what the President said about California’s attorney general. Calling her the “best looking” seemed rather innocuous, and the President didn’t just say she was a pretty face, but also talked of her qualifications and work. However, there is the disparity between the genders that women are seen as the pretty thing, and that is a metric by which they are judged. There is nothing wrong with being physically attractive, but if that is how people think of you, even in your professional environment, then you will have trouble being taken seriously as a hard-working individual. And there is science to back that up: even benevolent sexism does harm, and in some ways it is worse that hostile sexism. The former will actually make women less likely to try to change the sexist dynamics of things, while hostile sexism will be a call to action. So just today I have had to reconsider a position I have had on the subject, even though initially I felt that the problem was exaggerated. I read, I listened, and I thought. That is what we should do, even to views we initially find intuitively off. I have tried to do that with those fighting against A+, but those arguments are worse than laughable.

It’s time to change. So think about how you deal with the issue. Actually reflect on how you perceive things and how those on the other side do. That is part of being reasonable and compassionate. Anything less than that is not excusable anymore.

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One thought on “Getting Women Interested in Science and Skepticism

  1. Pingback: Jesus was King Arthur, and a Pharaoh, and King of Edessa–The “Scholarship” of Ralph Ellis | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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