I don’t blame the UNIFI president who interviewed and selected the officers, as I myself did not view this to be a major problem at the time. But as I have more recently become cognizant of the gender disparity in the freethought community, as well as its implications, I have come to realize that something needs to change.
At CFI’s Women in Secularism 2 Conference this past May, Carrie Poppy remarked that she has a friend who studies social movements, and that almost every movement has a “woman stage,” where women either engage or turn away from the movement. If women get heavily involved, the movement succeeds, and if they don’t, it stagnates. Her friend holds that the secular movement is in its woman stage right now.
This is not the only argument in favor of working to involve more women in the movement, but it underscores how crucial this endeavor is to our future success.
While the reasons behind the relative lack of women are complex, the steps groups can take to be more welcoming are not. It is important to note that there are both smaller, more subtle changes groups can make as well as larger, more explicit actions. As for the former, the primary challenge is to be conscious of how some our actions, though seemingly insignificant, can create an environment where women are inclined to think, “This is isn’t for me.”
According to Dr. Bernice Sandler, expert on gender inequity in education and the workplace, we unknowingly create a “chilly climate” for women, which is where women are treated differently from men in subtle ways. These differences, or microinequities, can include interrupting women at a higher rate than men, as well as giving little attention to an idea a woman raises, only for a man to raise the same idea and have it be considered seriously. While engaging in this behavior is typically unintentional, it is important to recognize the damaging effects it can have on making women feel like they belong in the group and that their opinions matter.
As a member or leader of a freethought group, it is important to keep an eye out for these types of behaviors and to intervene when a woman is interrupted or ignored. At UNIFI gatherings, we have found it effective to simply insert “I don’t believe she was finished talking, and I’d like to hear the rest of her point” or “Wait, let’s consider her idea for a moment before moving on” in order to encourage a more respectful, equitable atmosphere. Again, this is not a drastic change for a group to make, but it is nonetheless vital to keeping women coming back to freethought groups.
Aside from these subtle changes, groups can take more explicit action toward including more women in our movement. The obvious way, though sadly not always executed, is to ensure that sexism and sexual harassment are not tolerated. Much has been said on this lately, but it is important to reiterate that we can both be good skeptics and still take seriously the many stories of women being subject to sexist or harassing behavior in our own movement. Each individual case has its particular circumstances, but nonetheless, groups should be willing give a serious effort to correct any problems of this nature.
Another important effort is working toward women being fairly represented in positions of authority. Whether it is by means of a conference speaker roster, a widely read newsletter, or a leadership position for an organization, having women’s voices prominently displayed can have a positive ripple effect on the movement as a whole. People want to feel like they belong when they set out to join a group, and seeing primarily older, white men in positions of power can be discouraging, particularly to young women or those new to the movement. Assuming we would like to see our movement grow, we need to recognize our relative lack of diversity and try to avoid an environment that implicitly turns away potential new members. Furthermore, by not including many women in these roles, we are missing out on some of our potentially most passionate and effective writers, organizers and activists.
These suggestions certainly do not comprise an exhaustive list, but they are good start. A few months ago, I was sitting in one of our first officer meetings of the summer, and it occurred to me how much had changed in a few short years. Our team of six now consists of five women, all of whom were chosen based solely on factors irrelevant to their gender. While I personally think affirmative action can be acceptable in certain circumstances, I raise the point that they were not chosen by that means in order to display the tangible improvement we have seen by simply being conscious of our gender disparity and taking small steps to fix it. As long as we, as a movement, continue to push for a more welcoming environment and for the inclusion of women’s voices, I believe we can look forward to a future where reason, skepticism and humanism will flourish.
Stef McGraw is a fifth year philosophy and Spanish student at the University of Northern Iowa, and former CFI Outreach intern. She has been on the executive team of the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers for four years, which in that time has become one of the most successful and active groups on campus. She currently serves as president of the organization. In addition, Stef serves as the Speaker of the Senate for the Northern Iowa Student Government, and stays active in LGBT rights and other progressive causes.