Sexism & Skepticism on SGU: Recap!
For the most recent episode of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Steve suggested we chat about the topic of sexism at The Amaz!ng Meeting and in the skeptical community in general, prompted by Carrie’s Skepchick post on the subject a few weeks ago. I was happy that my fellow SGU guys were interested in the subject, so we had Carrie come on and talk a bit.
The conversation went smoothly. Carrie and I laid out several points, among them:
- the majority of TAM attendees are white males
- all but one speaker was a white male
- a few speakers made comments that were upsetting to many women in attendance
We also covered the following in response to those points:
- the majority of the people at TAM are very friendly and accepting
- the JREF faces many challenges when booking speakers and is not purposely excluding women
- the speakers in question responded and said they had not meant to insult anyone
Our discussion was friendly and upbeat. We talked a little bit about the TV show The Big Bang Theory, though Carrie rightfully said she wanted to minimize that as a topic since whether or not it’s sexist isn’t as relevant as other topics. To sum up our viewpoints on it, Carrie had never seen the show, the guys really enjoy the show, and I’ve seen the first 13 episodes and found the sole lead female annoying and insulting. We agreed to disagree about whether it was a good show, and moved on to the more important issue of sexism amongst skeptics.
Carrie and I both took pains to declare that there is no overt, conscious effort to be sexist and exclude women, and that the main hurdle at this point is to eliminate unintended behaviors that might drive away women and minorities, and to focus more on promoting women and minorities who are gaining prominence. I learned later that a few important points were cut out of our interview for time, but the gist seemed to come through.
The responses I’ve received by email and through the SGU forum have been interesting, with a few people thanking us for having a frank discussion about an oft-ignored topic and some others offering more examples of ways they felt the skeptical community as a whole could be improved with greater focus on issues of sex and race. Some emails thanked us for the discussion and disagreed with a few points. And then, unfortunately, some other people responded with ZOMG FEMINAZIS! Basically, the latter group heard the same interview as something resembling this:
(Okay, not the abortion part.)
Some people wrote in suggesting that the topic wasn’t worthy of discussion, and that Carrie and I exaggerated the problems. Many of the responses showed that on the contrary, we underestimated the problem and were downright wrong to say that the only sexism in the community is unintentional. Here are some highlights from the mailbag:
From Mike in Orangevale, CA via email:
I was listening to the August 4th episode, and your guest was Carey from Skepchicks that was talking about the Big Bang Theory show.
Actually, Carrie was talking about sexism. She mentioned a few clips she had seen at TAM of the Big Bang Theory and then asked that we discuss more important topics.
Skipping ahead a bit (bolding mine):
I mean is it surprising that attractive girls might be steered toward a path that is less than academic as they go through middle and high school? I rarely see really attractive women that are also highly intelligent or geeky and i dont think its a result of some kind of discrimination.
WTF? First of all, who said that all or most geeky women are or should be “really attractive?” Who cares? The point of our discussion was that we should focus on helping women feel comfortable in the skeptical community, not that we should . . . I don’t even know what Mike is saying here, actually. Is he saying that it’s rare for an attractive person to be smart, and therefore a TV show shouldn’t have a smart attractive person on? Someone call the producers of Bones, House, Fringe, Dollhouse . . . ah, screw it. Here’s how Mike wraps it all up, bolding mine again:
And did i hear right that the attendance at TAM for women was 40%!, i mean what do you want? i don’t understand what your guest is talking about saying that subjects and events like TAM are oppressive to women when you have half the TAM audience women.
Yeah, bitches, what more do you want? You should totally be happy with being half the TAM audience! Which is now 40%! 40% is half, really, it is! Even though you pointed out that the actual percentage was closer to 30%. It’s still pretty much half! Look at this pie chart I made:
Oh, and yeah, we never said TAM is “oppressive to women.” But why get bogged down with the facts?
If you think that Mike is just a one-off, you’re wrong. Gary from Albuquerque wrote in to disagree with everything we ever said, including (bolding mine):
Carrie lamented the fact that there aren’t enough women in the skeptical movement. Actually, when you consider the total population, there aren’t enough PEOPLE in the skeptical movement. And to be honest, most women that I know are more like the blonde character in Big Bang, and along with many men, are too busy living their lives to be interested in science, skepticality, or even current events.
So, most women and many men just aren’t interested in what we’re selling, and that’s why mostly men are at the conferences and why all but one speaker at TAM were men. Because women just don’t like science, guys! Case closed. Oh, you wanted scientific evidence that shows women just don’t like science? Gary prefers to base his assumptions on the people he assumes he knows, thankyouverymuch.
Now let’s turn to the SGU forum for a few more disagreeing skeptics, like “BertrandBataille,” who writes:
Honestly? It just felt like you were whining about stuff that, at the end of the day, doesn’t really matter.
This is in response to our reporting of incidents that upset many women at the conference. Why do their feelings just not matter? Hey ladies, are you running to hang out with skeptics yet?
One of my favorites on the SGU forum is user “Hanes.” At first it was tough to pick out just one gem of awesome from the veritable Tiffany’s he has erected, but then he posted this (bolding mine):
Anyway, my point is: fuck you. Fuck you, because I can tell you every single male at that conference would have enjoyed their time just as much if not more if their gender had been in the minority. No group wants more women in skepticism more than men, and you claiming that there’s a quiet, insidious sexism at work only betrays some hidden persecution complex you harbor.
This was in response to me correcting him on a strawman argument he built, saying that I called Kari Byron the “best example of women in the media” and then posting a picture of her nearly naked in some attempt to show that Kari isn’t worthy of being considered an intelligent, wonderful person since she’s actually a filthy slut, or something? I’m not sure as his “arguments” make no sense. He, like too many listeners, apparently, seems stuck on the minor point that I don’t like his favorite TV show, and that I feel the first season of it does a disservice to women by making the lone female main character a complete idiot. For that, I have a “persecution complex.” Sure.
Forumite “KarenX” does an admirable job of pointing out Hanes’ inanities, including an enlightening exchange in which he maintains that of course he wants more women in the community. She asks why. His response? To fuck them, of course!
Why would I want more women at a skeptic meetup? Well, the reason is twofold. First is the obvious one, which you have undoubtably guessed already. I wish to meet more people of like mind and unlike gender, such that I may begin a life-partnership with one of them and perhaps one day create a young version of us, be it daughter or son.
I suppose I should have understood that when he said “fuck you” to me, he meant it as a romantic overture. Me and my silly girl brain!
But wait! There’s another reason he wants more ladies around, and not just because of their quivering ova just waiting to meet his skeptical seed!
As you have noticed, when men are left to their own devices, a “locker room” atmosphere tends to develop. Women are a moderating influence on this; men, in the presence of women, are less likely to say, “and she is hot” and more likely to engage in conversation on the ideas presented by the female in discussion. This may be in a subconscious attempt to not offend or impress the females present, but intentions are irrelivent for my purposes. I hate locker rooms. Most nerds do. Bring on the enlightening discussion; women are a great help at doing this.
Wow! So it turns out that after all that bluster, he actually agrees with what we said? That maybe, just maybe, a bunch of dudes all together in one place might unknowingly create an atmosphere that makes women feel unwelcome?
Oh, but when KarenX calls him on it, he clarifies that that’s not sexism. Calling that sexism would be “rediculous” [sic]. Darn. We were so close.
Later, Hanes goes on to call me a sexist due to the Skepchick/Skepdude calendars and the fact that I have flirted with people. I responded to encourage him and others to discuss that because I’m just as accountable as anyone, and I think there’s certainly a case to be made that I’ve done or said some sexist things in my time. I figure, if this is the way they learn how to examine behaviors with a feminist eye, then all the better.
Why is it that feminists are so often misrepresented as being too sensitive, when cases like this clearly show the opposite? Neither Carrie nor I ever told anyone “fuck you.” We never called anyone a sexist. We never lost our temper and we gave everyone the benefit of the doubt, assuming or accepting clarifications that an insult wasn’t intended.
If only the same could be said for those who took offense to our discussion.
So, I throw this all back to you in the Skepchick community. What did you think of the interview? Were Carrie and I off-base? Is the backlash obscuring legitimate critiques?
And yeah, the standards for posting here are a bit higher than on the SGU forum, so please try to avoid the Hanes-like approach to public discourse or else you may end up banninated.