Why Women Will Save the Atheist/Skeptic Movement

Sep 22, 2013

Two years ago, I was the Director of Activities of the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI), the campus secular group of which I am now President. While we were successful and well-respected on our campus, we had a deficit that we shared with many other organizations in the movement–few of our members were women. As we pondered this problem at an officer meeting one day, it didn’t take long to address the elephant in the room; out of the eight organization leaders, I was the only woman.

 


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.

Written By: Stef McGraw, President of UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers
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23 comments on “Why Women Will Save the Atheist/Skeptic Movement

  • 1
    strangelove says:

    Is it possible that it’s not a case of sexism (or racism) or reverse ageism, but it’s simply the case, that right now, it just happens to older white men who are drawn to this movement?



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  • 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. … 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.

    I consider myself a feminist but I have reservations about these kinds of initiatives. If someone is interrupting you then by all means tell them to STFU and let you finish, absolutely. I just don’t think it should make a difference if the person being interrupted is a woman and it kind of feels condescending to treat women as if they are fragile creatures who need extra help to get their voices heard.



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  • 3
    jason.p.green.50 says:

    Personally I don’t treat women any differently than other human beings. I also know one or two who would resent being treated differently (mollycoddled?) because they’re women. Also, the headline to this article is strange. Women are going to save the atheist movement? Really? We’re in trouble? Really? Atheism isn’t in trouble and never has been.



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  • I don’t think we’re talking about coddling women. I think what the author is trying to say is that women are being treated differently, even if subtly, so if it is noticed that women are being interrupted at a higher rate than men, someone should be willing to tell the interrupter to let the female speaker finish her point. Subtle differences need to be made in order to help eliminate the subtle differences in treatment, and I think I have noticed these subtle differences in atheism as well as in other male dominated areas. Most of these subtle differences in treatment aren’t intentional. At least, I don’t think they are.

    For example, I study in a male dominated field and I work in male dominated field. I don’t think any of the men I work with or study with are what I would call misogynists. I do, however, notice differences in treatment. For example, males at my work will look over my shoulder checking my work constantly, and they don’t do this to each other. Though, I have seen them do this to the other women. It may not be their an intention, but this is highly off putting. It can send a message that says, ” You obviously can’t do your own work.” I don’t think this is the message they intend to be sending. I imagine it may be hard to understand this unless someone has been on the receiving end.

    I think the point is that minor differences in treatment can send the wrong message, and this message can be misconstrued, as well as being highly off putting to women. No, we shouldn’t coddle women. I definitely don’t want to be coddled, but we should try to make women feel welcome by recognizing and trying to fix inconsistent treatment of them.



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  • 5
    bluebird says:

    In reply to #3 by jason.p.green.50:

    …the headline to this article is strange.

    Shades of hyperbole, similar to ‘Why Women Should Rule the World’.



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  • 6
    jack.blair.10 says:

    In reply to #3 by jason.p.green.50:

    Personally I don’t treat women any differently than other human beings. I also know one or two who would resent being treated differently (mollycoddled?) because they’re women. Also, the headline to this article is strange. Women are going to save the atheist movement? Really? We’re in trouble? Real…

    The gnu-Atheism certainly is in trouble.

    “Atheism is still with us. But the movement that threatened to form has petered out. Crucially, atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance.”



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  • 7
    blainedeyoung says:

    Everyone I talk to agrees with my anecdotal experience that women are more religious than men are. Their minority status here is understandable. I think it would be great for more of them to get involved, but what are we gonna do?



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  • 8
    phil rimmer says:

    we unknowingly create a “chilly climate” for women

    I think it may be more complex than this. I had my eyes opened to a pernicious sexist fact by the COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg. Her TED talk here notes the effect of this problem….”women don’t keep their hand up”. They are the victims of two subtle effects, one is they underestimate their own importance/capabilities (men overestimate) and the second is something she mentions in her book Lean In (which she talked about on a recent edition of Woman’s Hour on BBC R4).

    What she described I was totally unaware of. (I’m not good at these things at the best of times.) Women who behave in anyway as a little pushy are rated by men and women alike as unpleasant, unfeminine, un-nurturing. This judgment is rooted in society from the very youngest ages. Very small children will judge a woman far more harshly than a man for the same act of assertiveness. We are perhaps conditioned by the fact of our mothers to this early stereotype judgment. Women read this disapproving sign efficiently and back-off early.

    The funny thing is, this harsh judgment depletes quite rapidly with known individuals but remains for unknown women. The harsh generic judgment of unknown women-as-mothers changes with familiarity. A handful of acts of assertiveness resets expectations amongst colleagues.

    All my life I have worked with assertive women, actors, lecturers, journalists and engineers. If they were ever not assertive it was a hurdle they cleared very early on. My contention is that the barrier for women in group discussions, say, may be lower and more temporary than we might imagine. Remember that men are unreasonably self-confident and women unreasonably less so and that initial negative judgment from both men and women that assertiveness brings, will rapidly go away as a generic judgment is replaced with a thoroughly reasonable personal one.

    I believe, the risk of condescension to women, eg by attempting to create “safe spaces” is to risk permanent entrapment in a world beyond such niceties. The retreat into a virtual burkadom is to play into oppressive hands Take the plunge. Persist just a little and watch the change…



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  • 9
    QuestioningKat says:

    I’m going to be unpopular… Here’s my anecdotal view…I know very few women who like to get politically involved – it’s too confrontation. Women would rather be accepting of others’ views and brush any conflicting views under the rug. We cooperate instead of buck heads. A few women are comfortable with being part of the big boys club and their personalities usually have a “harder” edge. Instead of soft and inviting, intellect and a blunt tongue is part of her way of being. This is fine, but not all women are like this. Men communicate differently and most women tend to not be interested in the topics. I find myself somewhere in the middle of all this. Yes, I’m a bit blunt, head over heart, but prefer cooperation and less intellectual topics when in person socially. I’m also pretty tolerant of people who bless me and express religious views.

    I think INFORMATION and evidence will allow the atheist population to grow. As for women involved in the skeptic movement – it’s a matter of time.Women will need alternative to religious practices and social situations. If someone provides reliable information showing unfair treatment, sexism, and ways to improve – listen up. But no, you will probably never see me at a conference, I’d rather be outside enjoying the sites or painting.



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  • 10
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #9 by QuestioningKat:

    I’m going to be unpopular… Here’s my anecdotal view…I know very few women who like to get politically involved – it’s too confrontation. Women would rather be accepting of others’ views and brush any conflicting views under the rug.

    Well as you said this is all anecdotal so I agree neither of our anecdotal evidence counts for much but for what it’s worth my experience is very different from yours. I’ve known lots of women who were politically active and I’ve absolutely known lots of women who aren’t at all afraid to be confrontational. There is definitely a sample bias there though, I like women who aren’t afraid to be confrontational.

    In my experience women tend to be more pragmatic in their politics. Men tend to be more concerned with conceptual issues and issues of principles where as women focus on issues that directly impact humans in the here and now. If that is true then I could see why the current atheist movement wouldn’t attract a lot of women. When you have things like women’s basic reproductive rights under assault in many US states, it’s hard to get worked up over things like atheists whose biggest issue seems to be telling other atheists that they won’t shut up



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  • 12
    phil rimmer says:

    Red #10

    Men tend to be more concerned with conceptual issues and issues of principles where as women focus on issues that directly impact humans in the here and now.

    This strikes me time and again as true. My (ex) wife often noted my interest in the deficiencies of lawnmower design when the lawn needed mowing.

    Whilst this gender disparity is probably reflected in the statistics, by re-centering the focus of the site to better include the generation and promotion of practical political actions I think it can gain a wider and more balanced audience.

    For me, anyway, the philosophy is a done deal now and every month gets more “done”, so…..Now what do we do about it all?

    A final plea, though. I would love the platform for this effort not to be simply Atheist, but the broader one of antidogmatism (! or at least, adogmatism) using evidenced reason. This clears the political decks for the widest of appeals.



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  • In reply to #9 by QuestioningKat:

    I’m going to be unpopular… Here’s my anecdotal view…I know very few women who like to get politically involved – it’s too confrontation.

    I’ve just done a rough tally of the number of women who contributed their comments to the thread about deconversion stories ( thinking it would be about 50/50). To my great surprise, the number I could definitely attribute to female members was only 14…..that’s less than a quarter in an area that I would consider to be female friendly!

    The idea that most women avoid voicing an opinion about confrontational topics seems to hold true, though I’m not sure about the other attributes you’ve mentioned in your post, eg the ‘harder edge’. I think that implies a negative judgement and I’m not 100% with you on that.

    So what is it? Would the statistics be different if the millenials made up the bulk of contributors? Perhaps I could offer another explanation in addition to those I’ve suggested in the past. I think most women ( including me) are afraid. We’re afraid that people won’t like us. We’re afraid of being wrong and we’re afraid of sticking our neck out. By way of example I would frequently like to comment on various articles but I’m held back for fear of making a mistake or misinterpreting the message. I always figure that I can’t be the only one…there must be others who share my lack of confidence.

    So, these are my latests thoughts on the lack of female contributors dilemma.



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  • 14
    LaurieB says:

    In reply to #9 by QuestioningKat:

    I’m going to be unpopular… Here’s my anecdotal view…I know very few women who like to get politically involved – it’s too confrontation. Women would rather be accepting of others’ views and brush any conflicting views under the rug. We cooperate instead of buck heads. A few women are comfortable…

    I’ll be unpopular with you Kat. My communication style with men is definitely different than with women. With men I never refrain from blunt statements and in calling them out on their own statements and views. With women I’m much more subtle in communication of my disagreements with them. I never put them in a position where they feel on the defense. I emphasize the points on which we agree and then circle back to the disagreement in a vague roundabout way usually asking them how we could see it from a different angle or asking them how we could compromise on that, etc. I wouldn’t be bothered with all that in conversation with a guy. They’d see it as weakness.

    I realize that I’m generalizing here, but I will stand by my assertion that in a group of women, when one of us bluntly corrects another, she will be perceived as a hostile bitch. There are social consequences for being a hostile bitch! Many women are not capable of separating out a disagreement on issues from a personal attack on themselves. This makes it difficult to have an efficient, logic based discussion of many issues.

    I think it’s a real failing that we don’t have more women atheists. It IS very important to have women in leadership roles for us. I want “safe places” where women on the fence can have discussion with us in a non-confrontational setting. This means a lot. There are some aspects of being a female atheist that guys can’t relate to. We are suspected of being bad moms if our kids don’t attend church. We are suspected of bad morals too. Every time my kids ran into trouble someone in the family or community pointed out to me that atheists are crummy role models for kids or some other such stupid comment. These are hurtful comments from theists and many women are worried about being “out” atheists and having to manage this substantial level of bad blowback from people all around them. I don’t blame them for being worried. Many women are not as resilient as I am and won’t have the force of personality to shut someone up when they need to.

    I should have posted on another thread that I would love to see a more targeted approach to women who might be on the fence but don’t have a clear idea of what a positive thing it is to dispose of their misogynistic religion. For women it’s freeing and empowering to know that they can be good without God and that they don’t need religion to teach their kids right from wrong, good from bad, and what is valuable in this life. They can do a better job of that all by themselves with guidance from pragmatic ethics and humanistic ideas. When more women know this then they will be free to leave those oppressive institutions and walk out with their children following them.



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  • 15
    LaurieB says:

    Here’s an idea for consideration: Let’s get together a group of women atheists both high and low profile, and have a panel discussion on points that are unique to us. Let’s talk about strategy. Film it and put it up on this website. It’s an excellent starting point. I predict that there would be some interesting information revealed that would valuable in our effort to reach out to women who are stuck in the pews.



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  • In reply to #15 by LaurieB:

    Here’s an idea for consideration: Let’s get together a group of women atheists both high and low profile, and have a panel discussion

    That’s a great idea! Not so sure about the filming though…… I think I’d get stage fright. What about a topic for discussion? Perhaps we could lure some of those female members lurking in the shadows of ‘Guest’ status.

    Correction…..I see! You mean a panel made up of prominent female atheists? I thought you meant that we would be the panellists.



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  • 17
    LaurieB says:

    In reply to #16 by Nitya:

    That’s a great idea! Not so sure about the filming though…… I think I’d get stage fright.

    Understandable, but I’d want to set it up as a very casual setting. I can image it as a women’s version of the four horsemen discussion. When I watched that video for the first time I thought they seemed like four buddies who got together in -was it Hitch’s apt? – to talk about an important topic that they all cared deeply about. I felt like I was a fly on the wall watching a fascinating discussion. I’d like to see women in a similar setting and let others be a “fly on the wall” in that way. If the setting was casual like that then some women who are not used to speaking in public could at least not be intimidated by long tables on a stage with microphones and an audience (possibly hostile) who hang on their every word. Granted, some of our high profile women atheists must be used to this more formal setting but it would be quite scary for some of us.

    I’d love to get some well known women atheists in the discussion but I would also want to have at least one ex-Muslim, ex-Christian, ex-Jew, and women who have left other religions too. Women of color and different economic groups need to be heard as well.

    I want women to come out of the shadows on this website too. I understand that it can be intimidating here sometimes but it’s definitely better than it was in my first several years. Moderators have helped out a lot with the crude hostility.

    What about a topic for discussion?

    Well, as you might predict, I’d like to get input from anyone on that. Let’s cooperate and compile a list together. 🙂

    It would be difficult to get a group together in one place at the same time. Maybe it would be practical to wait for a conference that’s underway or for the Reason Rally and get people together after it, while they’re already on site.



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  • In reply to #17 by LaurieB:

    In reply to #16 by Nitya

    That sounds like a very accessible format. I’ve been considering the scenario and the people possibly involved. I agree that a range of experience would add to the impact as well as a pleasant personality and rapier-like wit. The logistics of the exercise could be a problem. Where do we find these women prepared to talk? Is there any way they could be corralled and filmed?



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  • 19
    QuestioningKat says:

    In reply to #17 by LaurieB:

    In reply to #16 by Nitya:

    That’s a great idea! Not so sure about the filming though…… I think I’d get stage fright.

    Understandable, but I’d want to set it up as a very casual setting. I can image it as a women’s version of the four horsemen discussion. When I watched that video for the first t…

    I think we should just start here via the conversation board or just continue here. The challenge will be that men will chime in and insist that their views are valid… but maybe we just need to do it anyway. Perhaps start with one topic of a series.

    Here’s a few ideas:

    Why/how did you become an atheist?
    Did you know any atheist women while you were a theist?
    What challenges do you face?
    How open are you about your lack of belief?
    How do you view the world differently through the atheist lens?
    How important is social contact with you?
    Do you feel that you are more independent socially and intellectually compared to your female peers?
    If you were someone to participate in ritual as a theist, do you do so now? and how?
    What new customs have you brought to your life/family?
    At what level are you involved in secular events?
    What is your biggest complaint, irritation about other atheists?
    What brings you the most joy about other atheists?
    What changes need to be made so that other women will feel comfortable being an atheist?
    What keeps other women as deists, new agers, and “I don’t care, but celebrate Easter” instead of questioning themselves and their views?

    thoughts
    …..



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  • 20
    QuestioningKat says:

    Many women are not capable of separating out a disagreement on issues from a personal attack on themselves. This makes it difficult to have an efficient, logic based discussion of many issues.

    I think this is true. Niceness is highly valued.

    I emphasize the points on which we agree and then circle back to the disagreement in a vague roundabout way usually asking them how we could see it from a different angle or asking them how we could compromise on that, etc. I wouldn’t be bothered with all that in conversation with a guy.

    I think this is true, but you’d be surprised how many men expect women to cheery, inviting, and circle around disagreements.

    when one of us bluntly corrects another, she will be perceived as a hostile bitch. There are social consequences for being a hostile bitch!

    Yes



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  • 21
    LaurieB says:

    In reply to #19 by QuestioningKat:
    Yes, wow, that’s a lot of material to start with.
    Wouldn’t it be better to have a new thread? Lurkers may not realize we are in discussion here, this being an old thread that was lately revived.
    Let’s hold out a hand to our lurkers to come out into the light. 🙂



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  • In reply to #19 by QuestioningKat:

    In reply to #17 by LaurieB:

    In reply to #16 by Nitya:

    All of these questions are of interest to me, so I think they would be to other women as well. I’d welcome male input because they’d be engaging with the discussion. Being ignored or trivialised is one of the aspects in social interactions that I hate the most.



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  • In reply to #20 by QuestioningKat: and # 17 LaurieB

    What do you think? You’ve both had more experience at this than I have ( especially QuestioningKat ). Could you mount our shared conversation as a question for discussion?



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