The Amazing Meeting is having some enrollment problems — and strangely, they are going against the overall trend I’ve seen in many skeptic/atheist conferences, as reported by the JREF president, DJ Grothe.
…this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed…I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.
There it is, in one paragraph: the problem AND the cause. Only it’s not the cause DJ thinks it is.
It’s unfortunate. Years ago, TAM was a leader in getting a wider range of people motivated and attending — it was the meeting with the smallest percentage of old white men like me attending, and I considered it a nice model for getting more diversity in the movement. I also have to give DJ credit; he’s really gone to bat to get more women represented on the stage. I don’t think DJ has a malicious, anti-woman bone in his cheerfully gay body. It’s also good to see that he sees declining female registrations as a serious problem, and feels some urgency in correcting it.
But sometimes, he can be so oblivious.
First of all, when women are talking about harassment problems, listen: don’t try to tell them that they really shouldn’t feel that way, and worst of all, don’t treat it as a mere perception problem. Your concern should be to address the root causes so that their complaints disappear, not merely wave your hands at them to rationalize a stance of ignoring them. Think, “Hmmm. These people have concerns, how can I address them?” not, “Hmmm. These people have concerns, how can I get them to stop expressing them?”
Secondly, don’t blame the reporters. They’re your sensory network, they’re out there experiencing your meeting and coming to you to tell you what they thought. Dismissing unpleasant reports is a good way to blind yourself to what’s going on, and to increase the magnitude of the problems. Good job, DJ, you just discouraged all the women who want your meeting to be successful by telling them it’s their fault if they talk about sexism.
I think TAM was also a leader in some ways: last year, they were very quick to post an official anti-harassment policy. Good work, except now DJ is claiming that it has never been used.
It is true that harassment issues are much discussed in some quarters of the skeptics and atheist and other allied movements (all generally for the better, to the extent the emotionally charged issues are tempered with evidence) but to my knowledge there has never been a report filed of sexual harassment at TAM and there have been zero reports of harassment at the TAMs we’ve put on while I’ve been at JREF.
What? Ashley Miller was harassed and reported it, and now DJ is denying it happened. I heard from another person near the end of the conference that someone had blown through the nearly empty hallways while a session was ongoing to make lewd remarks to someone sitting at the tables; it was reported, I heard, and I joined in with another fellow to look for the “gentleman”…he’d escaped, so it didn’t happen? There was also an incident on twitter in which a prospective attendee threatened to grope Rebecca Watson on an elevator at TAM; I thought his registration was revoked (I also heard that it was restored when he said pretty please, but I’m not sure about that).
So now these incidents didn’t happen? Baffling.
It’s all well and good to have a piece of paper that you can wave around, saying that harassment will not be tolerated…but the next step is effective implementation, and that hasn’t occurred. Document everything: there should be a formal procedure for submitting a report in writing that gets filed away. There should also be an action taken — dismissing the offender from the conference, escorting someone out of the hall, giving a verbal warning, whatever — and that should be written down, too.
Without all that, we get into these ugly situations where the victims experience these events, and then watch them get flushed down the memory hole — their concerns are simply dismissed.
DJ needs to own up to the existence of a real problem, rather than closing his eyes to it and pretending it’s only a PR issue. He’s got to take TAM’s anti-harassment policy seriously, and give it some teeth and engage in some record-keeping. I do think he means well, but good intentions are not enough. There has to be some solid effort beyond drafting a list of dos and don’ts.