Women In Secularism 2 – Gender Equality in the Secular Movement liveblog #wiscfi


Women In Secularism 2 logo

Moderator: Greta Christina
Panelists: Ophelia Benson, Elizabeth Cornwell, Debbie Goddard, Stephanie Zvan

Greta plugs her book and her new sex-positive group.

Stephanie shouts out harassment policies, everyone cheers.

Ophelia plugs her blog, everyone also cheers.

Elizabeth Cornewll is an evolutionary psychologist, “on behalf of all women and my colleagues, I’d like to suggest it’s not a pseudoscience.” Applause.

Debbie blogs in several places and is big in CFI and is totally awesome (I might be injecting some of my bias here).

Greta: What does “gender equality” look like in the secular movement? What are your goals?

Stephanie: Believe it means more than just numbers. When we have gender equality, we’ll be able to have conference about movement and not have it start with a statement that says “those are all really good things but don’t take it too far.” *huge cheers* Gender equality is when you can be as cranky as the guys are. When you can screw up once in a while without it hanging around your heads and proving that women are unfit to lead. When we can inspire so many more women to just get out there and work.

Ophelia: Good when we can have a twitter hashtag without it being filled up with garbage by people who aren’t here, who hate the idea and everything it stands for. Without having to argue about it, to expect conferences to look pretty much like this one without its necessarily being called “women in something”, just folded into the movement and be taken for granted as belonging there. Seen as completely central to the movement, or the issues just not being talked about any more because they’re already withered away.

Elisabeth: Treat like Martin Luther King, judge not by the color of their skin — that it’s not just women, that it’s all of us. Extends feminism to all human beings, to humanism, because we all need this. Hearing stories of struggles of women in religion are moving. Need to think of the men too who also can’t leave religions though. Need to speak up, need to listen, that’s how we’ll reach equality.

Debbie: I dunno. (Good answer!) Have been asking other people — what would success look like? Great conversations, not one answer. Easier to compare it to “what would racial equality look like”, but still have no idea. There isn’t gender equality in the greater culture. There isn’t atheism and secularism equally represented between the demographics in US. Shouldn’t expect equal representation for different racial groups in atheist movement now. Certain challenges that movement isn’t addressing that are more important in the other demographics — at least nowhere near as much as “the ONE issue that we attract to the movement”.

Haven’t heard atheists say “well gay people, not so sure” though — we tend to treat need for equality as a given and shun people who are against gay rights. We don’t yet do the same for gender issues or race issues. We don’t make it integral to our beliefs that of course women’s equality need to be fought for — success might look like that being the case.

Greta: Haven’t touched on numbers. Is it to be 50/50? Is that an important marker?

Stephanie: We might not expect to see 50/50, but we should expect to see no conferences where NO women are speaking, which still happens. We need to see more parity with background population. Liberal religious people have women quite well represented — we need to pay attention to representation of women. Can’t go after numbers though. Address the underlying issues.

Ophelia: If there’s a drastic imbalance, that’s a sign, if you see that you should dig deeper. It often turns out it wasn’t just pure preference after all, there’s a reason for the imbalance. Studies of tiny changes turn out to change women’s attitudes to an office environment — even things like adding a plant might skew people to not dismiss a place as “not for me”. Can’t just decide ahead of time to need exactly proportional representation of women. But, if it’s very skewed, there are reasons.

Elisabeth: Understand why numbers tend to be skewed — have definitely seen a shift in last ten years in terms of young people and women coming to conferences. There are issues that face women and racial minorities that are different that men don’t face that way. Whether it’s PC or not, women are the caretakers, and because of that, need to do more to help women in families. Need to do things that allow women to give up religion and become more involved. Have given talks on evopsych about why women are more religious and it has to do with family. Need to help women be able to abandon religion. Where there’s social support, there’s less religion. We are a volunteer nation, and religions are the ones who tend to volunteer. Need to provide the support women are looking for.

Debbie: I’ve forgotten the question. *laughs* I got this coffee this morning… There were good points made here, want to highlight them. Word science was used, research, the plant thing. Our brains are dumb. We like to say “all our decisions are rational ones!” but they’re not necessarily. More research in getting women involved in STEM, getting good data, showing putting more pictures of women as scientists in science textbooks actually helps. Science shows that representation helps! If there’s an event, more than five speakers, they should not all be men. Trying to change conferences, to show people like them. If people say “but then you don’t get the best speakers”, reevaluate what you think is best. We join people because of commonality of experience — it matters to see people your age, your color, your gender, not homogeneous crowd of old white people. Numbers do matter.

Ophelia: refers back to Rebecca Goldstein’s talk. Greta: “Yes. Oh my lack of god.”

Greta: Intersectionality: when talking about gender equality, need to talk about inclusion of women of color, trans women, not just college educated women in the US. I’m not sure there’s a question in there. Are we too US-centered?

Debbie: Conversation with someone from Oslo, Norwegian humanist association is largest in the world with a population of 3/5ths of New York. Has more women than men involved. Things that they do are different than our atheist activists: a lot of it is community organizing, baby-naming ceremonies, “confirmations” for 15-year-olds, family involvement resources. Wonders if they have convos about getting more men involved.

Ophelia: Have a thing for internationalism. Have done her best to cover international stuff for people who speak English. Wonderful that CFI invited Maryam Namazie — hero for years! Brings more of a spotlight for women’s struggles around the world. Didn’t mention Norwegian government funding of humanists org. One thing focus on women in secularism can do is to bring attention to issues in other countries.

Stephanie: Let’s talk about head scarves. If we want to tell people to choose not to wear head scarves, women might be shot for it. We need to find a way to demand meaningful choices for these women, rather than suggest they just walk away from their religion where it’s not as possible.

Greta: Want to get positive. What have we already accomplished? Are we moving toward gender equality? What are we doing right if so?

Elisabeth: We’re seeing improvement, but we’re seeing in the general population as well. We keep a little bit ahead of the gen pop. Bringing young people into the movement is a help. Greater stigmatism for women to be atheist than men. Know lots of men who are atheist who are married to religious wives, never met the opposite (until meeting Theresa). But that’s an exception, because when married, they were both religious. Most women she’s spoken to, there’s more acceptance of men being atheist because in a lot of feminist writings I disagree with they talk about rationality being male and intuition being female (um, what?). Women are criticized for being rational and direct. Have been told she’s scary, but has to manage a department and she’s direct. “I’m really not scary, honest.”

Was expected to be a mother and wife, and if couldn’t do that, was to be a librarian, nurse, secretary, etc. Was discouraged for science. Went back and did her degree later.

Getting back to expanding to women, women of color, women in bad economic conditions — need to tell them that rationality is allowed. And please do it.

Ophelia: You could almost say doing the kind of thing you’re talking about could be seen as more of a guy thing. Have been talking about this for some while, have gotten in trouble for saying this. Has been seen as a fight with god, and god’s a man, and women are not seen as big and strong and angry and articulate enough and dedicated and motivated enough to take on that battle. Deep stereotype. We don’t want it to be this way, but it’s a strong unconscious thing that might cause people to think “it’s more of a guy thing”. Having audiences like this whittle away at that. Chip away at buried ideas that women aren’t supposed to “do atheism” by showing women doing atheism.

Stephanie: We’ve made quite a bit of progress. In the last year, definitely in last five. Things doing right: we’re complaining. Bernice Sandler was here last year, great talk. one of the thing she pointed out is that when women complain about injustice, they may deny it exists, but it may get better anyway despite the immediate response. That’s not the RESULT of you complaining, which might be a tangible improvement. Women atheists have been doing an amazing job speaking in atheism and academia and have been promoting each other over the last ten years. When someone throws a conference, there are more women volunteering, and there’s a woman on that board saying “how bout this person?” We’re doing things that are probably obnoxious, but that’s okay, it WORKS.

Elisabeth: One of the things we did wrong, and I’m going to take credit for this — we asked Ayaan Hirsi Ali to participate in 4 Horsemen DVD, but she had to leave, so she couldn’t participate. We need to do something similar to complete that series inviting Ayaan and maybe another woman speaker. It’s unfortunate the original DVD didn’t include Ayaan, which might have promoted that there are women in atheism. Audience: “Susan Jacobi!” She wasn’t on that con, unfortunately.

Debbie: So.. yes. Um. One example: The Amazing Meeting. Ignoring last year’s statistics for reasons, previous year was huge improvement in terms of women speaking, 50% speakers. That made a big difference. In the past we drew mostly from bestselling authors and professors and philosophers who WOULD talk about atheism. Neil DeGrasse Tyson wrote about being one of very first black astrophysicists, so getting diversity might be tough if you only pick up the names with big degrees. See more educators, organizers, activists and bloggers in local conferences — derision about “just a blogger” despite writing thousands of words a day.

22 women, 47 men, 3 people of color for last year’s TAM according to an audience member.

There’s been change in the movement — look at the student movement. Apparently young girls/women involved — but Debbie doesn’t see as big a change as she’d like. Still see maybe 33% at student cons. Not many people of color. Still see lots more young people involved, which will shift as we diversify issues we address. Still a lot more to go.

Greta: We’re talking about affirmative action here — does that work? There’s a lot of pushback against it, like there’s a quota, which lowers our standards.

Stephanie: Plug for Minnesota Atheists conference. Almost ended up with full roster of women speakers accidentally, decided we needed to do that consciously if it happened (and really like Hector Avalos). Some are people who weren’t necessarily speaking all that long ago. (If they were, maybe board hadn’t heard them.) People are making an effort to get new speakers out there; young speakers, people of color. Happens even when that’s not something you’re trying to do.

Ophelia: Yes it works. If you’re only inviting Star X, Y and Z, next con says “we should invite Star X, Y and Z”. When you see people speaking, you’re more likely to see them as the right people to ask. You start to get people who have been invited 50 times, but not new people. Affirmative action works because once they’ve been seen, they might be seen as worthwhile.

Elisabeth: I’ll speak from experience, I work with popular speakers who are males, not going to go into details… conferences want to make money. Richard’s been around a long time, has earned his rep as speaker and scientist, have to give him credit for being a New Atheist at 70. This is part of the problem — as the base expands, it takes a while. So grateful to women who came before me. “Can I use a bad word? We’re bitches. I didn’t have to be that.” Mentored women who came after her, so they didn’t face the same challenges. To get them in and get them to speak. Women tend to be less willing to ask the questions “which is sometiems appreciated because people go on”, but they learn to feel comfortable with mentoring.

Debbie: How do we measure if it works? I’m an organizer. Do we see a change? If goal is to broaden the movement, we can reach out to other kinds of people than the twenty who show up at monthly meetings. With affirmative action, you get people saying “I dunno, is there a problem? I don’t SEEeeee race…” then wonder why their communities aren’t growing. People don’t think about why there’s no outreach. At cons — “Why weren’t there more black students here?” “Well did you talk to the black students union?” “Oh, that would have been a good idea…” Need to reach out to grow. We can do better and reach more groups if we think of more groups TO reach out to. Now we’re tabling at sci-fi/fantasy conventions and there’s a big overlap there (nerds!). That’s a kind of affirmative action. Need to try to find the people who aren’t so like ourselves.

That’s where the pushback against mission drift comes in. Hear that a lot as director of African Americans for Humanism and con planner. But it makes a difference to reach out to these communities. They won’t show up if they’re not invited. Need to sell products by marketing to other demographics. Shift the message, new people come in. It works with Mountain Dew.

Need to also include artists. Left out art talking about science, need more artists in. There’s a shift to include webcomics artists etc who promote science, that’s good.

Greta: Reach out and ask people. 50th American Atheists conf in Austin had huge increase of African Americans. Amanda Kneif was asked how they got so many tabling there — answer, “we asked them.”

What are consequences of not having equality?

Stephanie: Some of us have been living through this. If you’re one woman in a group of guys and someone comes up and says “hey, did you come here with your boyfriend?” or “women can’t think.” or “know that guy over there, the president or organizer who agreed with you? He’s just doing it because you’re sleeping with him.” Guys don’t necessarily see those things when they happen even if they’re happening in front of them. One of the things that’s been happening this last year is that men are now forced to see them. Women are coming out about certain transgressions to say “yeah, they were a jerk to me too.” Being a minority group, it makes a difference when you’re in the majority in a group. “I don’t feel alone here.” If I say something, women might say “yup, happened to me too,” and they’ll have my back.

Allows me to know I can step up, have support… at least for the good ideas. There are studies talking about a tipping point — what kind of percentage of female representation do you need for intimidating or microaggressive events to stop happening. There are a lot of strong women here, but we shouldn’t have to be so strong. With good representation, we don’t all have to be so strong.

Ophelia: Stephanie’s right but I’m goign to be Debbie Downer. One of the consequences of increased representation is that we become more visible and we become targets. We are on the upper slope, and because we’re having some success, that’s why we’re having to put up with a lot more shit from people who want to cut that success off at the knees.

Get a lot of comments from women who say “thank god you keep talking because otherwise I’d get out.” Worth being aware this is happening, worth being more numerous, but be aware that your not backing down in the face of that shit helps others.

Elisabeth: If we don’t reach equality, we lose. Our children lose. And so on.

Debbie: I was scared of being on this panel because “what? What are we talking about? Too broad a topic!” But now wish I had half an hour to say to each question. Greta: “Good blog post!” Debbie: “That would take too much time…”

Didn’t know what it was like to live in the suburbs until she lived in the suburbs. Once she did, she had shared experiences with other suburbs dwellers, could have conversations. We learn things we didn’t know before when we include diverse people, and we like learning! Improves our ability to think critically about things. For a Mormon in Utah, different perspective. Living in Buffalo, didn’t think I’d learn about Canada, because “Canada, what?” There are times that you do have to “shut up and listen” because you don’t know what others have experienced. *WOO*

Not worried about getting assaulted or street-harassed walking alone, because she’s not a small skinny blonde, don’t have that experience where she is, because people are usually like “Excuse me sir, pardon me” rather than assaulting her.

Need more people from different countries to get more experiences and make better decisions about these things. Without those experiences, we’re ignorant. And that’s all kinds of diversity.

QA 1: Can we help diversity by helping economic issues?

Elisabeth: Child care is a big issue, trying to improve financial ability for women to come to cons. Cons are expensive. Don’t see a lot of poor men here either. Most people here are well educated, have professional jobs. Now Richard even gets recognized by taxi drivers or luggage handlers or people walking down the street. How do we then reach these people? Supplement them with scholarships to students etc. Money is a huge issue.

Stephanie: If all your meetings are just big meetings in one place, even if it’s somewhere in the central city, there are a lot of people who can’t afford to get there. They might only afford to get education for their kids out in the suburbs, and can’t get to the city. There are different kinds of poverty we need to address. Meet up groups help, need to do ones where they don’t have to buy dinner and a drink, in various places. Diversity of events and venues.

Q: More unstable societies are more religious. Stable societies with good health care and education tend to be less. Are women more religious because their positions are more precarious?

Stephanie: Yes.

Elisabeth: Yes. This is why women go to religion — it offers free child care, support, family. In black communities, as Jamilla was talking about, the idea that all this support through religion has to do with economics. Families need support. Could speak on it for hours. We talk about herding cats, we’re a bit on the nerdy side, we say we need rationality, we poo poo emotion, but we forget that aspect of human behaviour. We’re changing. Have seen huge change in last ten years about “what do you think of atheist churches?” Ten years ago you “would have been shot in the head, or hung.”

Ophelia: Tragic irony in women turning to religion due to oppression — their largest oppressor. It’s like stockholm syndrome. Imagine what dinnertime was like in the house with three kidnapped girls.

Greta: Should we focus on eliminating gender binaries as much as gender roles?

Debbie: Workshop at TAM about skepticism and gender — feminism is generally a lot more accepting of people outside the binary, because a lot of the things that go into reinforcing that binary are systems that oppress women. Ripping off Amanda Marcotte now. *laughs*

As we move into being interested in defending same sex marriage, we see more LGBT identified people on stage. Don’t see much reinforcement in the feminist change of the secular movement of rigid gender roles. Had to define terms on workshop like “gender queer” and “gender fucker” with Dawkins on stage. Some people are interested in categorizing, some are interesting in smashing those boxes. For most others, they’re rigidly defined, and it’s important to talk about. Need to talk about how LAPD stop and frisk minorities more often so you can’t just say “there are no such boxes”.

Stephanie: We talk about the binary more when people try to put us on the defensive. We have to refer to research, and the research has to define gender. Because it has to talk about the big picture and has to simplify things, it sounds like we’re reinforcing those roles even when we’re not.

Greta: Okay, there’s more to talk about, we want you all to talk about things during 1h15mins to eat.

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