Show her the money!

Happy International Women’s Day!

In every field, at every level of education, men earn more than women. That’s the grim takeaway of this new report [PDF] from the U.S. Census Bureau, which assesses the value of a higher education in the United States—and illustrates the persistent pay gap between male and female employees who hold comparable degrees. In short, education is valuable, but it’s most lucrative if you’re male.

I have more patience than some others when it comes to stupid attitudes about sexism and feminism. Part of that is simple privilege: I can afford to not take those kinds of attitudes personally; however, some of  my zen is honestly come by. I’ve always called myself a feminist, but my understanding of that term didn’t really mature until I became involved in organized skepticism. I then came to understand feminism as a branch of skepticism – learning to unpack and, in a way, debunk claims about gender roles, sex characteristics, history, and a whole host of others. In fact, the level of overlap between feminism and anti-racism has helped enhance my understanding of both topics.

I can kind of understand the problem though, and it relates directly to that overlap. I care deeply about anti-racism for, at least in part, fundamentally selfish reasons. While I must always start this statement with the huge caveat that I have managed to escape the worst aspects of racism in my own life, racism still very much affects my day-to-day life. I have, therefore, a vested interest in seeing the world pay more critical attention to race and race issues. Because of this selfish motive, it is easy for me to empathize with women and recognize the multitude of similarities in the problems we face. However, it took me several years to come to this conclusion.

So when I see woefully ignorant, knee-jerk reactions to misogyny [Note: there has been some confusion. The question that the linked post answers: “why isn’t there a day for men?” is the knee-jerk reaction. I link to this post because it is a thorough takedown of the question, not because I think it’s too snarky], I can recognize the person I used to be in their indignation. My zen comes from a sort of “there but for the grace of god go I” reaction. They’re not stupid, they just aren’t smart yet. And while I am (and have always been, I like to think) a person who is happy, even excited, to be proven wrong, not everyone has the benefit of a self-esteem that is as bullet-proof as mine. I used to be wrong about feminism, and every day I try to be a little less wrong.

Results like those found in the study above paint a vivid and important picture: sexism exists and is relevant in our lives in the same way that racism does and is. One simply cannot accept the facts and interpretations thereof when it comes to racism and then turn around and fail to make the same case for sexism. The minutiae of the two phenomena may be subtly different (misconceptions about women are different than the misconceptions about black people when it comes to work and ability), but the outcomes and the mechanisms of marginalization are the same. To understand and support one is to understand and support the other; and the same goes for rejection. It took me a while to recognize this fact, but once seen it cannot be unseen.

Table from disparity study

Economic power and political power are inseparably wedded. For better or for worse, money moves policy. A gap in the earning power of women (for identical work) is either reflective of, or the force behind (it is likely the case that one hand washes the other) a diminished role of women in public life. This is, to be sure, improving due to the indefatigable efforts of women’s rights activists and their allies. That being said, it would be short-sighted in the extreme to hang our hats on the successes we’ve won. We are nowhere near a place where we can dust off our hands and pronounce the problem ‘solved’. Not when we are still finding metrics like this one popping up again and again.

I am not suggesting that it is the job of other to ‘soft-peddle’ their responses to sexism, or to fight against it any less vociferously. I had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the light of recognizing male privilege and systemic misogyny – overlaps with anti-racism notwithstanding. Sometimes you need people giving full-throated defenses of important ideas, and sometimes you need to be up in people’s faces. What I am saying is that we as skeptics must recognize that, until we bring feminism into the skeptical ‘mainstream’ (along with UFOs, chemtrails, homeopathy, reiki, and the other associated woo), we are failing to model the ideals we claim to hold. We become no better than the “religious scientists” and “don’t talk about religion” types that rightly inspire eye-rolling. Failing to examine our own biases and implicit attitudes leaves us vulnerable to the kind of self-crippling that results in the kind of skewed results we see above.

As I said on Twitter this morning, the women in my life make the world a better place. As someone who recognizes what they’re up against, I have no problem seeing my job as doing my best to return the favour.

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  1. jamessweet says

    Sorry if this is somewhat of a derail, but talking about the similarities between racism and misogyny reminded me of something I speculated on awhile back, and I’d be interested to get your take.

    It is much easier for me to imagine a future world with no racism than it is to imagine a future world with no misogyny. I think I have a good reason for thinking this, but I might be being naive on one hand, or being a mite misogynist on the other. But here’s my pitch:

    In a world where there was no correlation between where you lived and your skin color, where people grew up being surrounded from a very young age by people of all colors and were no more encouraged to think of them differently than they think of people with different eye colors as being different, it’s hard to really see where racism would come from.

    Maybe another way of saying it is, if you took a bunch of kids and divided them into two towns, and one town was mostly white and the other was mostly black, even if they were never exposed to one iota of racist ideas I’m pretty sure they’d figure out how to be good little racists all on their own. The human propensity for Othering is just too strong. But if you mixed the towns up so there was no division according the skin color, the kids would just find some other way of Othering the Others. They wouldn’t know they were “supposed” to use skin color as a basis for Othering, any more than we use eye color.

    On the other hand, no matter what kind of society we envision, as long as a most of the population is mostly heterosexual or homosexual (i.e. very few people with no sexual preference), then there is an obvious and crucial division being made between men and women. This is even ignoring the obvious sexual dimorphism in our species which, although relatively moderate, will always ensure that there are fertile grounds for stereotyping, e.g. it will always be the case (and I don’t think it is misogynist to say so) that the upper echelons of sports which require physical strength and size will always be predominantly filled by men, and us humans with our lousy practice of over-generalization will have no trouble translating that into “all girls suck at football, no exceptions.”

    Not that any of this is relevant in the present; the idea that we’re living in anything close to a post-racial society is just silly. I just think it’s interesting to speculate about. Racism may conceivably disappear altogether, eventually, in the distant future; but I fear that misogyny is part of the human condition, and will thus require eternal vigilance.

    (I expect both to require constant vigilance for my lifetime and well beyond.)

  2. jamessweet says

    some other way of Othering the Others

    heh, I didn’t realize the sing-songy cadence of that phrase until I was reading it back.

  3. says

    Oh. Sorry. It’s in the report, but it says “Base <200,000". I have no idea what that means. Maybe that there weren't enough in that category to make the calculation?

  4. says

    Thanks, I suspected it might be some version of “insufficient data”. Though I had thought the gender balance had equalized enough since we were undergrads — when my wife was one of like six women in a class of a couple of hundred — to the point where there would be meaningful numbers there. But maybe I’m biased by the fact that 100% (ie. 2 out of 2) of the women in my immediate family are engineers.

  5. fastlane says

    I was wondering the same thing, Eamon. My wife has a technical degree and is working on getting into a PhD program (she’s way smarter than me). I’m an engineer in the aircraft industry, and if my experience is typical, it wouldn’t surprise me that there’s insufficient data.

  6. Change says


    I too suspect insufficient data. Female engineer here. I don’t know when you and your wife went to college. I taught mechanical engineering classes (as a TA and later as the primary instructor) a couple of years ago as a grad student, and the gender ratio was pretty skewed–around 10%. The gender ratio was little bit higher in my grad classes though (more like 15-20%).

  7. mynameischeese says

    And then these figures came out a few days ago:

    Of course I absolutely agree that atheism/skepticism needs to take account of all the different isms out there. One thing that alienated me from other atheist communities in the past was a complete unwillingness to get Marxist about anything other than atheism, and an inability to bring racism, sexism, homophobia into the equation.

    And it’s really hot when men are feminists 😉

  8. says

    @Change: Class of ’80 (me: Queens, her: MIT). Not too many women when I did my M.Eng. at Carleton in the early 90s, either. I do, however, work with a lot of women (~50% in the department I just left) who wear the iron ring, and they must be coming from *somewhere*.

  9. mynameischeese says


    One problem with your theory is that misogyny is not spreak uniformly across every culture or time period. Also, any two-gender constuction is going to be problematic as where does it leave transmen, transwomen and genderqueer people?

    Also: “the upper echelons of sports which require physical strength and size will always be predominantly filled by men”

    I think we have to ask ourself why our culture values sports where physical strength is the most important factor more than it values sports where skill, strategy or team cooperation are more important than strength. And then we have to ask ourselves, why other things that males tend to be excell are classed as “important” (and conversly, why female things are classed as unimportant).

  10. says

    And it’s really hot when men are feminists

    But don’t you know that’s why we all do it? It’s not for any of the reasons listed above – no no no, it’s so we can get laid. Because if there’s one group of women that are shallow enough to fuck a guy simply because he agrees with them it’s feminists *eyeroll*.

    an inability to bring racism, sexism, homophobia into the equation

    We (insofar as there is a ‘we’) aren’t there yet. We’re getting there. I can appreciate and sympathize with the impatience of many of my colleagues who are rightfully sick and tired of having to deal with the bullshit. I see progress though, and I think if there’s one group that I can rely on to respond to rational argument it’s this one. Yes, we might have to fight harder, but it’s harder to ignore/dismiss us.

  11. says

    I have been told it is correct to write it as “trans men” and “trans women” rather than “transmen” and “transwomen”. Trans being an adjective like ‘black’ or ‘gay’ or ‘tall’.

  12. mynameischeese says

    Oh god! And also I should have written “trans men” and “trans women”!

  13. wondering says

    Also, it is hard to write about this stuff without accidentally disappearing black women, as happens when one compares “women” to “black people”. I don’t know how to do it better; I notice it in other people’s writing because I struggle with it myself.

  14. jamessweet says

    A fair point. I’m making the assumption that the fact that most — though certainly not all — people fall very near to one of two poles of gender identification (and one of two poles of sexual orientation) is not purely the result of social constructions of gender. Admittedly that is pure conjecture, but I feel relatively confident in that conjecture, since I am not aware of any cultures at any point in history where this is not the case. It is easy to point to cultures where other genders/orientations were recognized (though I’d point out even these cultures seem to be in the minority), but I am not away of any culture where identifications other than male/female were common. If I am mistaken about this, please educate me!

    As to society placing higher value on traditionally “male” activities (such as physical sports), this is indubitably the case, but I think it’s somewhat of a red herring for the purposes of what I was getting at: My point is that as long as there exist any activities where one gender has a biological advantage over the other, that is an opportunity for stereotyping and prejudice.

    I guess I’m taking a fundamentally cynical position here: I am skeptical that prejudice can ever be completely eliminated as long as there remains the slightest opening to invent a prejudice. For race, I can imagine a distant future where variation in skin color were simply ignored. There’s no biological trends on which to exaggerate a factual statistical bias into a full-blown stereotype, and there’s no practical reason why anybody has to much care (well, sunblock I guess?…). On the other hand, we are legitimately a sexually dimorphic species, which provides much ammunition for those who would like to exaggerate and over-generalized those differences; and, assuming that the tendency of most people to gravitate towards one of two poles of sexual preference is not a purely social construction (which I realize is conjecture, but one I’m fairly confident in), then there will always be at least one very good reason to care what gender a person is.

  15. Stacy says

    So when I see woefully ignorant, knee-jerk reactions to misogyny, I can recognize the person I used to be in their indignation

    What exactly is your criticism of the post you linked to? How is it woefully ignorant?

    Is it the level of snark? Because you seem to agree that snark can be a useful tactic when directed at religious privilege.

    I thought the post combined education with snark in a constructive way–but I respect your opinion and am curious about the details of your objection to it.

  16. says

    Sorry, that obviously wasn’t clear on my part. The post is correct. The question it is responding to is the knee-jerk reaction. “Why isn’t there a _____ for the privileged group?” That’s the objectionable thing.


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