When Gender Goes Pear-Shaped: Not Quite

Discussions about the observation that there are less women involved in secular and skeptical communities and how to improve the situation is nothing new, but the latest debate surrounds an incident described in a guest post at Blag Hag, When Gender Goes Pear-Shaped by Sharon Moss, which took place at the American Atheists’ Southeast Regional Atheist Meet where an attendee was made to feel alienated after posing a question to the panel. Her question pointed out that the panel used the term “female” repeatedly instead of “woman/women” during the discussions about how to make atheist groups and events more female-friendly. The blog post refers to the attendee’s concern that the term “made us sound like livestock rather than people” and describes that the panel didn’t really address the question but instead “The woman asking the question was viciously torn apart and ridiculed for even bringing it up.”

When I first read the post I was shocked that such a poorly run panel took place. However, since viewing the actual footage of the event, I found that the appalling behaviour and outrageous comments from the horribly moderated panel I had imagined didn’t actually exist. I kept waiting for the wildly inappropriate male panelists and audience members to begin their ridiculing. I kept waiting for the shocked faces of the offended women in the audience. Blag Hag guest blogger, Sharon, left me thinking a horrible incident had occurred, but the spectacle I had imagined never came. In fact, the account of the incident wasn’t entirely accurate.

I had expected the topic of conversation to be, as the post describes, “that men hitting on women is just biological (therefore excusable), making it sound like a woman in that kind of situation should just STFU and get over it.” Not only was that not the case, but it was actually a pretty nice discussion about making a safe atmosphere, not being a dick, and one panelist pointed out that his group is made up of a lot of families. From reading Sharon’s post, you get no hint that a mature, productive discussion occurred at all.

The post paints a picture of a panel which not only ignored the woman audience member, but only took questions from the males. The reality I saw from the video was that it wasn’t an audience Q&A at all. They didn’t take any audience feedback, except for an informal polling by a showing of hands. I get the impression that the reason she was ignored, if she was, would be because that wasn’t really the format of the panel. Honestly, once she asked her question about the panel’s use of the term “female” it seemed like there simply wasn’t much interest in the critique. After all, her question didn’t have anything to do about the current discussion. The post gave me the impression that there was an inequality in the use of the term female throughout the discussion that this woman was drawing attention to, but the panelists used the term “male” as well in reference to “male atheists”.

Finally, the blog post made me imagine that the infamous “weaker sex” joke by one of the male panelists was said with a venomous tone. Not only was it not as deebaggy as I imagined, it wasn’t even quoted accurately. Sharon quotes him as saying “What do you want us to say, ‘the weaker sex?”, which made me imagine a direct insult at her. Instead, he said “Now, one will use ‘the weaker sex’.” which was directed at the audience in general and seemed completely satirical of idiots who would actually use that term. What made it funny was how unacceptable it is to think that there’s such a thing as a weaker sex.

I initially trusted the description of the events that took place, but now feel the tone and content of the blog post misrepresents the tone and content of the available video footage. I think it’s important to take a critical look at such important concerns about the atheist and skeptic movements.  Ensuring that secular and skeptic groups and events are inclusive to everyone is important to me; reaching out to more women is important to me, and making sure people don’t feel alienated is important to me. But I feel a little duped by the picture painted in Sharon’s post and this makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable because I don’t like the idea of tackling problems based on potentially inaccurate information.

What worries me is that unhealthy divisions can form instead of real growth. Sharon’s post focused on the claim that male attendees simply use the excuse of “it’s biology” when faced with concerns surrounding flirtation. What I would’ve missed if I hadn’t seen the footage of the discussion was that the panelists brought up the fact that there aren’t many options for atheists or skeptics if they’re looking for somewhere to find like-minded partners, besides conferences and meetup groups. The real take-away from the discussion was that there is a need for spaces that cater to singles seeking other singles within the movement, with one female member of the audience pointing out that women go to events to meet men as well. That is a bit of a different situation than the guest Blag Hag post would leave you with.

I don’t think that Sharon or anyone else should be told to STFU or that they’re overreacting. I just think it’s worth investigating whether or not thousands of women are being driven away from atheist events “for no other reason than because this movement can’t seem to figure out how to treat them like equal humans.” That’s not a small claim.

Taking individuals’ feelings seriously and addressing their concerns in a respectful manner is important (apparently, the claim that this didn’t occur may also be inaccurate). But we can do that and still apply critical inquiry to people’s concerns when evaluating what changes should be made to the community as a whole. Just because I feel like the American Atheists SERAM panel was grossly misrepresented in Sharon’s post doesn’t mean I think there aren’t any problems.

But just because Sharon feels that the reason for lower ratios of women in secular humanist groups is for no other reason than unequal treatment of women by the movement doesn’t mean this is the case. There might well be other reasons, and it’s important to know the real picture if you care about improving it.

EDIT: 02/13/11

I just wanted to a add a final summary.

  • I feel the tone of “When Gender Goes Pear-Shaped” was inappropriate and I was left feeling fooled by originally trusting its accuracy. The author left me in no doubt that the panelists were malicious and demeaning when this clearly was not the case.
  • It’s possible to empathize with both the woman who was offended and Sharon, who wrote the post, and still disagree with their assessment of the panel.
  • The claim that there are less women in atheism solely because they are being driven away by sexism is a huge claim, for which no evidence has been presented. Making changes to the structure of an entire movement without any objective investigation can cause unintended damage to secular communities.
  • All claims are subject to skepticism, and there is a distinction between feelings and claims. I’m uncomfortable with what feels like a growing atmosphere where legitimate criticism and inquiry is characterized as bad-mouthing, on either side of any debate.

Alienating women by calling them feminazis is wrong. Mischaracterizing people while voicing legitimate concerns is also wrong and alienating.

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