Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sexy time!

Lots of discussion these days about sexism among the skeptical movement. It's very depressing to read, both because I don't see a solution, and (or maybe "therefore") I'm not sure I can see the problem.

There's a voice in my head that says "stay out of this," and "no happiness lies at the end of this road," and "seriously, stay the hell out of this and keep your stupid mouth closed." But where would I be if I listened to advice like that, besides thin and rich? I'm going to wade in anyway, mostly to organize my own thoughts. Should they occur.

I think I just exist with a neutral zone around my head on this issue. Maybe I am just so damn male that I'm blind to sexism. I'm sure that's part of it. But it's scary too, because I would be horrified if everyone thought I was a sexist. How would I get my feet rubbed? Tim might be my Hetero Life Mate but I don't want his fingers on my plantar fascia any more than he does. (Before you write your "What's the Harm in The Man Version?" SkeptiSlashFic, look up what the plantar fascia is, please.)

Why aren't women better represented in skepticism?

I've tried to noodle this out, oblivious as I am. It's tough, because I don't think we know a cause. Some possibles have floated by:

Skepticism is still a Good Ol' Boys Club.

There are undoubtedly pockets where this is true, but I think it fails as a cause for two reasons: 1) No one has pointed to any instances of actual repression of women by the hoary old men, and 2) accusing a group of nameless men someplace of being unable to accept women in their groups strikes me as... well... sexist.

From what I've heard of the latest discussion, no one is really accusing anyone of intentionally shunning the ladies. We're probably guilty of some mannerisms and telling some stupid jokes that can be offensive, but that's hardly unique to skepticism. Nor is it a one-way street.

Until we can get more women really active in the sciences and in science advocacy, I think the women we have need to do some grass-roots stuff. It's thanks to grass-roots skepticism that most of us have heard of HLM Tim Farley, or Robert Lancaster. Or Rebecca Watson.
Which brings us to...

There aren't as many women in the sciences.

This has certainly been traditionally true, although I hope the numbers are getting better. (I could tell you for sure, but that would require research I would frankly rather not do.) Is there still a stigma about women going into science and math? Is there some cultural facet that keeps the ladies out of theoretical physics classes but tuned into Oprah? I don't know -- which is just as well, because if there is, I don't have a clue how to fix it.

Oh, Oprah. Is there anything you can't make worse?

Skeptical gatherings aren't family friendly.

Since I don't have kids, this idea didn't occur to me until my friend Lisa mentioned it in a comment on Skepchick. Almost every local skeptic group I've heard of meets in bars. The Amazing Meeting is held in Las Vegas (which hardly anyone confuses with Disneyworld, except when Disney is covered in sand, filled with hookers, and baked at 350 degrees) and is one long drunken debauchery broken up by guest speakers. If any of that sounds like family entertainment, your kids may end up being taken away. Or lost in a blackjack game.

As a life-long teetotaler, I admit I've been frustrated that every skeptical gathering of more than two people has to be around alcohol. It must be worse for parents who would like to be more involved but can't just leave Junior alone with a box of diapers, 20 tins of tuna, and a can opener while Mom and Dad go to a five-day frat party. (I don't have a solution here, either. Getting skeptics out of a bar is probably harder than getting an Oprah fan to be an astrophysicist.)

So what do we do?

I am not going to presume to lecture the women who are discussing this issue on Skepchick and other forums. They are all way smarter than me, and I've already admitted a blind spot.

I don't know how to get young girls interested in science across the board. For science to become "cool," something bigger than this blog (!) has to happen with our culture. Broader space exploration might help recapture the days of the Apollo missions. Or space tourism, if that ever becomes safe and affordable. All that seems like a long way off when we're actually arguing about whether the U.S. President wants send senior citizens to their deaths. (Doesn't that sound like a certain radio talk-show host got baked on oxycodone and watched Logan's Run over and over? And aren't we due for a Logan's Run remake? And is Logan's Run available on Netflix? I should go loo--.... sorry.)

Until then, any science interest must be planted and fostered at home. So we have to get moms and dads interested in science. Grrrr... I blame Oprah again. Maybe the best investment for all this stimulus money is to make jobs in science for attractive financially.

As for the family friendly thing...

I'm not just kissing up to Lisa (although doing so has always been a good policy), but the more I think about this, the more I see how this can be a barrier. It sucks, because my experience with people in the skeptical movement has been entirely positive. I've never met more caring, friendly, and interesting people, and there's not a group I'm prouder to be associated with. Even the more bizarre members are very kind. Except for that one guy. You all know who I mean, right? That dude is a tool.

I hate to think that others who want to be with us cannot because they're having the kids that we so desperately want to become scientists. Maybe it's time for skeptic gatherings to evolve beyond the floating kegger stage. We're smart people - I'm sure we can figure out a kid-enabled alternative that wouldn't ruin the dynamic that we currently have. I *like* Las Vegas, but maybe it's costing us in ways we can't feel in the pocketbook.

(In fact, I know we can make these things kid-friendly, and we're going to prove it once again at Dragon*Con. If they get bored by skeptic speakers, the children are never more than a few feet away from someone in an Iron Man outfit.)

Like everyone else, I don't have answers. (But I do have access! I can get right to the top of the JREF with a simple phone call! I just have to say "Maria, next time you talk to Phil, tell him I said hi!" I am so in.) We're smart folks, we skeptics. We can think through this if we can define the problem. I don't think we've quite taken that step yet.


Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer said...

I won't comment on the sexism part of the post -- I'm still mulling this over, and trying mightily to tweeze the tiny signal out of the overwhelming noise in this discussion -- but I will note that we looked into childcare at TAM 7, and the casino charged a fortune for it. I mean, a lot. It was simply not cost-effective, by a long shot.

I like the idea of childcare at D*C very much, and I'll be keeping my eye on that; I'd love to do something like that at TAM. I'm always interested in new ways of doing things if it'll help the community.

And as far as contacting someone high up at JREF, just send me an email. That way I can make absolutely sure I have your address in my spam filter.

Artful Dodger said...

This is, among other things, the response I was too chicken to leave over at Skepchick. I have a problem taking sexism too seriously in this era for several reasons. Before anybody blows a valve, yes I know it exists and yes I think it is wrong. However, that said, I grew up in the late '40s-early '50s as a left-handed, skinny, red-headed, buck-toothed math whiz. Sort through those for a minute and see if you find any "-isms" that might have divided me from my contemporaries.

We all have features that separate us from our peers. They may include gender, race, FSMism, etc. While many people are guided by their prejudices, the ones who really bother me are the ones who start a sentence with, "You're only saying that because I'm...." OK what's the next word? Black? A Girl? Asian? Gay? Stupid? Too often the perception of bias is completely in the eyes of the beholder. More likely, I only said "that" because that was what you made me think at the time. If you are being a loud-mouthed jerk in front of all of us, being a purple Zoroastrian does not make you any less of a jerk.

I am old. Because of that (and while I still can) I have memories of a far more sexist era, filled with the kind of crap no one would take these days. In those days, dick jokes were told to embarrass women, not because they were particularly funny. Yet,I remember having the hardest time explaining to someone who reported to me, that you can't run up to every female employee and hug them if they don't want to be hugged, even though they hugged each other all the time.

The times are changing and I'm all for it. But while they are changing it does not mean they have completely changed. The fact that black people can now walk with white people as equals doesn't mean that prejudice has been completely defeated. So too, the fact that more women have equal access to education and science-based employment does not mean that total equality has been reached. That will come with time and effort. It will not come with whining and hand-wringing. Take an active role in encouraging girls to have an interest in science (and math) (and history) (and....) instead of just whining about how there's no way a girl can succeed in this world.

As to making meet-ups "family" friendly, there is also the problem for some of us who are forced teetotalers. If I cannot both drink and live with my medications, I really don't need to hang out in a bar with people who are getting progressively more drunk as the night goes on. Perhaps the solution would be to have some meet-ups in alcohol-neutral places where it can be obtained, but is not the focal point of the establishment.

Two last things: If you want to see how Phil Plait will look in 25 years (only with more hair) I'll scrounge up a photo.

And, if you disagree with anything I've said it's probably because I'm left-handed, was a redhead before it turned gray, or you don't like skinny people. It couldn't be because of the content!

The Man Version said...


I'm not surprised child care is pricey in Vegas. Making Vegas truly family-friendly would be like making Nebraska host a surfing contest.

I'm sure the idea has come up in JREF meetings, and you have more numbers than I do. But my sense is that we can be either family-friendly or in Las Vegas, but not both. Since TAM has been growing steadily in its current format, it's tough to argue that there is an obvious problem. (And we might make it worse by changing anything -- money is already tight, and Vegas seems to do these events relatively cheaply.)

Dodger, I had no idea you were a lefty copper-top. I need to redirect you to a separate-but-equal blog we have set up...

Artful Dodger said...

And why would I want to be equal? (I've experienced a lot of "separate" already.)

Stacey said...

Christian - as usual, a funny well-thought out post. Your blog is one of my favorites. :)

And that's about all the nice things I have to say on the topic.

The bottom line for me what if a couple people made thoughtless remarks at TAM? People say thoughtless things all the time, and women aren't the only victims. This is playing the "woman" card against a phenomenon that's not specific to women. Women say thoughtless things about men, thin people say thoughtless things about fat people, and the list goes on ad nauseum.

Were the remarks thoughtless? Probably. Calling it sexism is blowing it out of proportion, and then extrapolating that to conclude that TAM is a sexist environment is a wild conclusion.

With sexism, and activism in general, a line needs to be drawn between constructive action and thought policing. If TAM didn't allow women to attend, or if TAM charged women a higher rate, or if TAM didn't allow women speakers, THAT would be worth fighting against. And women would be empowered to attend TAM, and possibly speak.

But fighting to control everyone's thoughts and actions so that a specific group never has to get their feelings hurt is not empowering. It sends the message that women are weak and need to be protected.

If I understood Carrie & Rebecca's hypothesis, it's that there are less women than men at TAM because TAM is a sexist environment. I'd like to see the data to back up that claim. It hardly holds up as a correlation much less causation.

I'd say the fact that the # of women at TAM has been steadily increasing doesn't support the conclusion that TAM’s sexist environment is scaring women away.

Regardless, Maria is helping the pack move forward constructively by brainstorming methods to attract more women to skepticism and metrics to track progress. I think attracting more women to the skeptical community is a worthy goal, as opposed to playing the blame game. I'm glad they have her.

Jen said...

Good post! I've been particular concerned with the family-friendly angle of this. I'm going to see what I can help do about that. :)

CharlesP said...

I'm side-stepping the main point about sexism (because, as I mention below, I don't participate in skeptic community) and zeroing in on your astute observations about the un-family-friendly-ness of most skeptic gatherings because I think it is particularly pertinent.

As somebody who has gone from YEC to atheist in the last 5 years (with a wife and 3 kids who are still very Christian) the lack of family friendly meetings means I'm less likely to become involved with the local skeptics very much. My atheism, much like my religious beliefs before it, plays second fiddle to my family in how I plan my time. In my non-work time, I rarely choose to do things that won't allow me to spend time with my kids or my wife. I am intrigued by projects like: which appear to be aiming to replace the socializing opportunities of church, without all the annoying church stuff. If the skeptic community is to grow through (de?)"conversion" from religious believers at all, especially family oriented ones, the process becomes much harder if you've not only got to give up all you once believed, but also can't replace the social network of church with something comparable (and hanging out at a pub isn't exactly comparable).

PS: I'm also a life long teetotaler, and the prospect of hanging out with people drinking heavily, especially ones I don't know, doesn't appeal to me at all (did that in high-school, had my fill). I can see that many skeptics are not naturally social butterflies (I know I'm not), and that for many of them the meetings in a pub mean after a pint they're more comfortable socializing. Alas, that isn't going to work for me.