Some Practical Thoughts on Women in Skepticism

Far too often, it seems, our thinking becomes caught in a loop of ideology and abstract thinking. When it comes to many issues, I see us forgetting about real-world, practical solutions because of the emotional impact that larger ideas and beliefs have on us. In an interview with Canada’s George Stroumboulopoulos (aka Strombo), author and professor of animal sciences, Temple Grandin touched on this issue which she calls “abstractification”.

I’m not into ideology and theory…Things have gotten to far away from reality–I call it abstractification. We need to be figuring out how to solve practical problems. In the ’50s, in my country, the Republicans built the interstate highway systems and the Democrates went to the moon.

As a woman with autism, Grandin explains she has difficulty thinking in abstract terms; her brain deals in pictures, a more literal style of thinking. What makes her happy is when something she does has a real impact on making the world a better place—-again, in a practical, literal sense. As a skeptic, I find it very important to base our solutions on evidence and apply critical thinking to them, instead of relying on what “feels right”.

Now, let me assure you…as a writer and artist, I’m fully aware of the importance and power of ideas, words, symbolism, and metaphors. In a few days, I’ll be attending The Amaz!ng Meeting where I’ll be presenting my talk on “Secular Storytelling”, which focuses on taking advantage of the powerful influence storytelling can have on us and it’s ability to inspire us into both action and a new manner of thinking, in order to promote skepticism and secular humanism. But I’m concerned that too often, more literal, practical thinking is being overshadowed by ideology and abstractification. And so, I’d just like to offer a few tiny examples of how we might do some more practical problem solving, when it comes to the issue of women in skepticism, in addition to the slightly more abstract action of speaking, writing, and debating issues in general.

One practical action has already been implemented at this year’s TAM; there seems to have been a conscious effort to invite more women speakers to conferences. One of the biggest and most easily remedied problems—-not just at skeptic conferences, but society in general—-is simply exposing everyone to more women. As writer, I often speak about the benefits of more depictions of female characters in comics, tv, and movies which demonstrate that women are just people. Think of the wide variety of male characters we’re exposed to and then the very narrow options for female characters. For this reason, I’d like to mention that I don’t want to see more women at skeptic conferences just talking about women’s issues—-we need to see more women talking about the same variety of topics that our male counterparts do, just like this year’s TAM lineup offers.

When it comes to the issue of women attendees, however, the issue has become focused on the problem of some women feeling uncomfortable or objectified by advances and flirting from male attendees. First of all, let me assure you that this is not a problem confined to skeptic, atheist, and freethought groups; I’ve been to a wide variety of conferences—-from the low to mid level anime and comic book conventions to the high-end, as classy as it gets, TED conferences. No matter what the topic, venue, or budget, when you gather a group of people in a social setting, you will end up with the problem of unwanted sexual advances or an unbalanced ratio of men/women attendees. This is an issue about conferences and meetup groups in general, rather than skepticism specifically.

One factor in this issue, however, is the practical problem that there seems to be a lack of social spaces for skeptics and humanists to hookup with other like minded people. Something which could be considered is having events set aside specifically for singles. This is a pretty common-place idea at other venues and in other communities, which have singles-only evening events as part of a conference’s program, or host meetups designated for single-and-looking members. If these spaces were available, there would a safe place for flirtation among attendees and might reduce the amount of this behaviour in settings where everyone simply wants to partake in causal socializing or intellectual debate without being hit on.

When the situation does arise where you’re feeling uncomfortable, I’d like to suggest that we consider doing a bit more speaking up, at the time. It may be that the people around you aren’t aware that they’re making you feel bad. We can be too quick to cynically believe our feelings will be misunderstood or ignored. I’m sure there are plenty of situations where we can politely express that we’d just like to be treated like everyone else and aren’t interested in flirtation—-not simply to say this in general but directly to those who are demonstrating that unwanted behaviour, when they’re doing it. Personally, I would do this before bringing up the topic in a more general forum because of the potential for a very practical result; that specific person might actually recognize their unwanted behaviour and make a real change in how they interact with others. Speaking or writing in a public forum to men in general has the drawback that many men may think that their own behaviour has never been a problem—-these gals are referring to other guys, not me! There are certainly going to be times where this won’t work, or is appropriate, but I think it’s cynical not to believe that most decent people will be understanding, as long as you’re nice about it.

And speaking of being nice…the last practical idea I’d like mention is one that has been mentioned before and applies to most any issue; remembering to not be a dick. This applies to everyone—-even you—-in pretty much every sitution. The “Don’t be a Dick” rule isn’t just about style; it’s a manner of communicating which has a real use—-not being a dick will never make things worse. But keeping to this motto is a lot harder than it sounds. It’s easy to be nice on matters which we aren’t emotionally invested in and towards topics which aren’t particularity important to us. Not being a dick doesn’t mean being a push-over or an apologetic. It means making a conscious effort to ensure that your words are going to be received in a manner which makes it most likely that your opponents may find them convincing.

As skeptics, we all know that the act of telling someone they’re wrong often makes them more deeply convinced they are right (my favourite book on the subject is, of course, “Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me” by TAM9 speaker, Carol Tavris). This is exacerbated by aggressive language, personal attacks, and general dick-ish behaviour. What I’ve seen in the discussions about women in skepticism is many debates quickly escalating into arguments blown out of proportion. One side will be called whinny, privileged, man-hating crybabies who need to shut the fuck up, while the other is called rich, white, fucking privileged, rape-apologetics who are an embarrassment to scientists everywhere. There is nothing helpful about this kind of debate. The practical result is only to make those who already agree with you more passionate, those who disagree more confident of their convictions, and everyone in the middle turn away and push the entire topic away from their interest completely.

What else can we do, in addition to debate and consciousness raising, that will have a practical benefit to the issue?

24 Responses

  1. Heidi Anderson Says:

    Excellent post Sara. I think the creation of a group of “single and looking” would be excellent, and perhaps even highlight some of the people (male and female) who may be interested in dating tips.

    Sometimes I think people in this movement are so used to thinking of themselves as rational, critical thinkers that when they experience strong emotions their circuits short out and they are sure that what they are feeling is RIGHT!

    We ALL can learn to slow down, step back, and stop inflaming the debate.

    I will not apologize for my “Dawkins Feminist Book Tour” t-shirt idea though, because that would be awesome.

  2. pickwick Says:

    So the problem with men making inappropriate advances can only be practically solved by women telling the men at the time, to their face, that they’re out of line, while making sure that they’re not being too, like, strident and hysterical about it.

    The first, fundamental problem with that theory is that, as usual, it’s putting the responsibility on women to solve a problem caused by men.

    The second problem is of a more practical nature – if you’re in a situation where you feel threatened even slightly by a man’s advances, the last thing you want to do is make him angry. That just puts you in more danger. And I think the last week or so has shown very clearly that yes, saying nicely that someone’s behaviour was a bit creepy and could they not do that will enrage a LOT of men, up to and including Richard Dawkins.

    I’m not against singles nights in theory, but I suspect you’d end up with 50 single guys looking horrified at each other 😉

  3. Sara E.M. Says:

    @pickwick: If you more read carefully, I clearly said this should be “considered”, and that it won’t always work/be appropriate. The Dawkins situation was a reaction to an online/public statement, not to a personal address.

  4. Mirik Says:

    Fair points, well

    I think the Dawkins affair would have a rather different tone and direction if discussed not on the safe hometurf of blogs, but in the presence of another person.

  5. afterthree Says:

    I would like to point out that many women may have negative experiences in their lives when it comes to telling men their advances are not appreciated. Our culture (not merely skeptic culture, but broader culture beyond that) expects women to be nice, accommodating, flattered, etc. when they’re approached: if we’re not, no matter how gently or nicely we say “no”, we’re often labeled bitches, ungrateful, or mean.

    If this was as simple as women speaking up, I don’t believe our society would continue to have this problem. It may be easy for you or I and some other women to simply speak up, but I guarantee for others this is not a viable option. I myself, while often do speak out in these situations, have also clammed up and “let it go” and simply looked for the fastest escape route when I felt uncomfortable, especially if I’ve received any signs or suspect my refusal may insight anger, violence or possible stalking behaviors. I am try to actively recognize these signs when men hit on other women, and if I think the woman is uncomfortable or having difficultly extracting herself, I will attempt to assist by helping to create a low-risk “out” for her if she wants to take it.

    Also, I strongly dislike and disagree with putting the onus here on women all the time, which is what I read from your post but may or may not have been your intention. While I agree this will help (teaching people how to treat you is always important), it’s putting women in uncomfortable settings that is problematic, and to a large extent that is something only men can correct. It shouldn’t be my responsibility to correct this behavior constantly, and no woman deserves to be put in this situation to begin with, and I don’t want to have to do feminism 101 with guys every time this happens: it’s exhausting, typically turns extremely defensive on the male’s part, and not how I want to spend a party.

    Note that men are also conditioned by our culture not to hear “no” when women say “no”. No regularly is interpreted to mean “maybe”, so even saying no, firmly and directly, often doesn’t help anyone. Saying “no thanks” or “I’m flattered, but no” is frequently read as coyness or “playing hard to get”, and can actually make the situation even worse with unwanted cajoling, coaxing, shadowing, and repeated future attempts.

  6. Sara E.M. Says:

    @afterthree: Again, I simply made the suggestion that we not be afraid to consider speaking up. As far as “putting the onus here on women all the time, which is what I read from your post”, this was only one point in the post—-I also brought up the suggestion of creating singles-only spaces for flirtatious interacting; that’s a practical solution which places the onus on organizers, not women. Other than that, your points are all valid, but since this is a discussion of practical problem solving, what are your suggestions? I ended the post by posing that very question.

  7. Christian Walters Says:

    Sara’s right. Heidi’s right. And get a few of those t-shirts printed up for us full-figured guys 🙂

  8. Melissa Says:

    Wow. Nice post Sara. I wish I had your gift for articulation.

    Right, so I hate to be a naysayer right off the bat but I think my opinion might be worth throwing in. As a single person, the idea of being separated into a group for just single people terrifies me. It puts so much extra pressure on the situation. Plus it feels like a “we’re going to put you people over here now have fun and mate” kind of thing, which is weird.

    I’ve been to many singles events and they just end up being very awkward. The women are forced to reject men over and over again because of the disproportionate advances. Plus I don’t like everyone in a room knowing that I’m single! Saying I have a boyfriend is my go-to sometimes.

    I guess what I’m saying is please let the mating dance happen organically. I just want to hang out with all you awesome skeptics and have a good time. I don’t want to be the “single & looking” person.

    I realize I may be off base but I just wanted to throw my 2 cents in. Thanks. See you at TAM!

  9. Sara E.M. Says:

    @Melissa That’s a great and very fair point. Though, obviously these events would be voluntary (you made me picture the “singles table” at weddings). Also, I think the idea can be a little more subtle is execution. For example, many anime conventions have dances during the Saturday night of the event–this is a sort of venue that I think people are more familiar with when it comes to flirting. If I recall correctly, TED had many soirees/cocktail parties organized for different sub-sections like singles, under 30, and the like. I suppose what I’m getting at is perhaps there’s a lack of appropriate atmospheres where “the matting dance” can “happen organically”.

    It’s a tough problem to tackle because that dance is so complicated. How to tell which people are interested in it in (heck, how do I even know in advance if I’m going to be in the mood for that?!) and the complicated truth that some people really do play coy. I know there’s had to be times when my “no” signals really meant “no, but try again”. It’s a messy situation. I’ve experience both wanting the attraction and enjoying being hit on, as well as the horrible, sad, feeling of thinking “I came here to be taken seriously but all I am is a cute girl”.

  10. Anne Marie Says:

    @pickwick: We don’t know which men will react badly to that. In the neighborhood I grew up, a woman rejected a boy who wanted her phone number and he shot and killed her. Other women have been raped in similar situations. In many other circumstances, men really just didn’t get that they were being inappropriate. How are we to know which man is which? I assume we are leaving psychic abilities off the table.

  11. Anne Marie Says:

    @pickwick: So sorry! I misread! My point stands in general to the article, not you!

  12. Brian Gregory Says:

    Great post Sara, and some great practical suggestions.

  13. Zeek Says:

    I’m struck by the comment that women shouldn’t have to be the ones to educate men about this because it is the men who have the problem. Am I wrong to equate this objection to saying that teachers shouldn’t have to educate school children? Afterall, it is the children who are at fault for being ignorant. Why should teachers have to fix that problem? I think telling one man at a time at the moment he does something objectionable is a great way to get the message out there. I can recall being in a relationship where I’d tell a boyfriend of a behavior I didn’t like of his, and he’d always want an example. If I wasn’t bringing it up when it was happening, I was sometimes at a loss, and he just assumed this meant he didn’t exhibit the behavior I was talking about. We’ve got to speak up, calmly and rationally.

  14. Conference sex redux Says:

    […] I think this article is a very reasonable and rational response to the issue of sex and the single skeptic […]

  15. S. Says:

    @Anne Marie etc: I find it just completely bizarre that I should even be thinking about being killed or raped, just because I reject guys. I don’t and I refuse to. Good grief! What planet is this? I am so tired of this whole “men are sexist” attitude and “we are too afraid to say so” and “it’s their problem”. Let’s give men some credit, they are not any more or less animal than women and they are not walking timebombs itching to rape anything that moves. I am not afraid to speak up when someone is treating me badly, or being rude, inconsiderate, sexist, racist etc. and my aproach has always been rewarded with at least respect and a gain in confidence. (Mind you there is a right way to do it.) If anything bad is to happen to me due to someone else being crazy, THERE IS NOTHING IN THE WORLD THAT I COULD NOT DO/ DO & SAY/NOT SAY TO STOP IT, or is there?

  16. Bjorn Watland Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post and for reminding me how important storytelling is.

    What people don’t realize, is how we practice storytelling every day, without realizing it. It becomes a powerful tool in shaping opinion and changing minds, but is so subtle, you are often unaware of it.

    One point I’ll make regarding the comments of people who had an issue with your writing, are the use of the words “only,” “always,” and “all the time.” Even words, like, “many,” and “often,” can be used around points being made based on personal experience, but are being used to extend to a wider group. Personal opinion is really important to hear, but can be disregarded if you attempt to let yourself speak on behalf of a certain group.

  17. gina Says:

    It seems to me that we can start with conferences having a female speaker talk about this subject.

    Skeptical men may be easier to get this though to because they are engaged in a lot of subjects.

    They know a lot more about dungeons and dragons, electronics, math etc. They are geeky guys…and they really have no exposure to women other than thier mother or sister.

    We are not dealing with lounge lizards or pimps here. We are dealing with the socially inadaquete.

    It should be easier to get them engaged. They are obviously interested. Let’s just clue them in so they know what is appropriate.

    Next year have someone give a lecture on the new social rules.
    The rules of the dating and mating game change so fast now that you have to be a bar troll to keep up with what is cool.

    It is a good bet the skeptic guys are not hanging out in bars. They are too busy actually thinking. So we all need to think this through.

  18. Beth Says:

    @15: I am not afraid to speak up when someone is treating me badly, or being rude, inconsiderate, sexist, racist etc. and my aproach has always been rewarded with at least respect and a gain in confidence.

    I agree with this, and do so. But while this is a fine approach for someone you already know (like a spouse, boyfriend or coworker) or with a stranger in a public space (like a bar or conference activity) but I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so in an enclosed space without other people around, like the elevator situation that started this whole thing.

  19. Mike Says:

    Great post. This topic has become so charged in the past week, and the arguments so ugly, I find myself pretty severely alienated. There’s no place in a shouting match for a person for someone to put up their hand and meekly say that they don’t agree with what’s being shouted.

    @15 S.: Thank you for reminding me that people like you still exist. I’ve been growing more depressed reading comments and blogs, that no matter what I do, I’m doomed to being perceived as a potential rapist. The thought is enough to make a decent guy sick. What’s a feminist man to do but treat women as frail, terrified rabbits. Our mere presence may be enough to spark fear of rape. And we can’t rely on any feedback: the poor girl might be too afraid to object! If that were reality, I’d simply rather not speak to any women at all. It’s the humane thing to do.

    I don’t even enjoy making comments like this one because it feels like I’m belittling the feminist position, and I honestly don’t want to do that. I just don’t understand how the it’s supposed to work, the way so many feminists are presenting it.

  20. S. Says:

    Beth, but the whole situation did not start with a guy attacking, or even clearly hiting on Rebecca, there is a lot of room for actual debate about how what he said to her could be interpreted. And I don’t think you have to necessarily percieve it as creepy or jump to the conclusion that it is a symptom of some inherent male sexism, misogyny, privilege, or even the stereotyped geeky social awkwardness. She did percieve it as creepy, and that is fair enough, but it is NOT really a good example of the real sexism that IS GOING ON. Now all of a sudden women come out and say they feel uncomfortable in the skeptical/ atheist comunities, because they constantly get unwanted attention and male interest. As if it were the same as being in any way victims of sexism and misogyny. It is not.

    I refuse to put up with being called a bad feminist, or anti-woman, just because I agree with Dawkins’ valid (at least in my opinion) point, that we are missing the real issues here. Now he gets hate mail from skepchick readers and people swear to never buy his books. All because he would rather deal with women who get arrested for driving a car, stoned to death for being raped, or mulilated just because, rather than to deal with the woman who gets aproached in an elevator and nothing happens.

  21. Bummedout Says:

    I for one am done. Sold my TAM ticket this morning. I cannot imagine the atmosphere is going to be anything but tense.
    I’ll still do skeptical education outreach in my classroom, but it’s obvious the “movement” is a) fractured along lines that are nearly impossible to fix and b) publicly disgraced and beclowned. And if the Skepchicks have their way it will be without one of it’s scientific stars. It was nice while it lasted, but I see no real future worth expending energy on.

  22. emily Says:

    I frequent another forum with a group of women that’s roughly 85% skeptical – mostly self-identified atheists with several ‘agnostics’ who mostly atheist, but uncomfortable with the harshness of the word.

    The discussion over there, vs the discussion in circles which identify as ‘atheist’ in purpose, is striking.

    Nearly none of us are active in atheist circles, in part because atheism seems to attract… well… ‘these’ people. People who don’t believe in ANYTHING they can’t see, least of all sexism. People who don’t understand that there are guidelines to hitting on women, and that women don’t reject them based only on looks. People who can’t be told these things because they retreat into lashing out against ALL WOMEN while simultaneously insisting they aren’t sexist.

  23. Lou Doench Says:

    @S, agreeing with Dawkins, ie:”All because he would rather deal with women who get arrested for driving a car, stoned to death for being raped, or mulilated just because, rather than to deal with the woman who gets aproached in an elevator and nothing happens.” doesn’t make you a bad feminist. It makes you a bad Skeptic, because a brief bout of googling would point you to the huge number of places Rebecca Watson and the Skepchick community have talked about all of those issues. Rebecca talks about those issues all the freaking time! As a matter of fact I’m almost positive that Rebecca knows more about female genital mutilation in the Arab and African world that Richard Dawkins does. Accusing Rebecca Watson of ignoring crimes against women perpetrated by religion is the height of ignorance of exactly who Rebecca Watson freaking IS.

    For instance…

    @Bummedout, that’s too bad… everybody I’ve talked to who did go to TAM appear to be having a great time.

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