Friday, September 11, 2009

Women in skepticism

The recent buzz in the skeptosphere is about women in skepticism. It's discussed on Skepchick. The main issue is that there are disproportionately few women in the skeptical and atheist movements. That's a bit of a difficult statement to qualify, since I really do not think of the skeptical movement as a demographic; there's no hard line between skeptics and non-skeptics. But by any reasonable measure--the leaders in the movement, the prominent bloggers, the people who attend skeptical conferences--we know there's an issue.

It's worrying that just about every one of my interests is male dominated. Skepticism, atheism, physics, and I'm aware that even puzzling is male dominated. Nearly every blog on my blogroll is written by a guy. It's funny because I certainly don't think of any of these things as being particularly male interests. But as I understand it, that's all part of the male privilege, that it never becomes an issue. I can pursue whatever I want without worrying about whether I'm working against or inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes.

So why are these things male dominated? I don't presume to have any special insight on this. There could be lots of reasons, and I will leave speculation for another time. But as Greta Christina argues, no matter what the original reason for the inequality, it's something which tends to self-perpetuate. Even if there is no outright sexism, women look at all the predominantly male leaders and become discouraged. And if there are more men than women, the group will more frequently focus on issues that interest the men more than women. So even while it may not be anyone's fault, it is still our responsibility to actively take steps to change it. Greta says the same thing goes for ethnic minorities, which is another thing lacking in the skeptical community.

As a specific example, consider Hemant Mehta's list of tips to meet atheist women. He corresponded with several women to compile the list, and he later gave it as a talk to the Secular Student Alliance. Not that it was a bad topic, but that's something which obviously applies mostly to heterosexual men. Hemant later tried the something similar for heterosexual women, but he only went so far as to ask for suggestions in the comments. And some of that advice looks pretty suspect.

Greta went on to suggested several such active steps, and I'll focus on the ones which are most relevant to me as a blogger. For instance, she suggested more linking, citing, and blogrolling of female and ethnic minority bloggers. Actually, I think that's a very difficult thing to ask. Quite simply, I don't read many bloggers who qualify. Picking out a blog to read is fraught with all sorts of concerns, like how much I agree with the blogger, whether I like their writing style, whether I like their subject matter, and so forth. Case in point, I used to read Skepchick, and I think they're great. But there were just too many fluff posts (ie link lists) for my taste, so I stopped reading. When picking out blogs, even little things like that will trump the matter of whether they offer a feminist perspective, as much as I would like that. So I end up with a blogroll with I think one brown guy and two or three women. It's all part of that self-perpetuating cycle, and this is not an easy point of the cycle to break.

Perhaps an easier way, is to put special effort to put some focus on issues that interest skeptical women. Here we have another obstacle: I don't necessarily know what those issues are! Even if I do know about them, I'm going to have an outside perspective which may not be particularly insightful. For example, I often hear discussions about the stereotype that smarter girls are less attractive. There's a lot of back and forth with some people saying, "That stereotype is so wrong and offensive," and others saying "Why does it matter so much how attractive I am?" and so on. Is there really any insight I could offer to this issue? I just don't care who's attractive and who's not.

So, ignoring the above extensive essay, I just don't know what to say. I don't know that there's a whole lot I can do, though I will continue to search for ways. Your thoughts?


Tizzle said...

Just to make you feel better: if you think it's difficult to meet straight women who are skeptic/atheist/etc, try being a lesbian looking for the same thing. :)

miller said...

Probably true!

Not being heterosexual myself, my goal here is not to meet women, not in that way. I just think it would be great to get more women involved in skepticism for skepticism's sake. If we could get as many women involved as we do men, it would significantly help to broaden and diversify the movement.