Sexism and Schism in the Skeptic Community

For years leading up to PZ Myers’ clumsy disclosure of rape accusations, the debate of sexual harassment and “rape culture” within the skeptical/Atheist movement(s) was steadily rising to a full boil. I am a little frustrated by this debate because I don’t attend the events in question; I read the books, magazines and blogs and listen to pod-casts. In most instances I turn to these materials because I’m interested in science and philosophy, not necessarily because I want to read about gender and social policy (much less about the self-referential politics of skeptical advocacy organizations). But gender issues are now in the spotlight, and that is probably not a bad thing because the problem is real as evidenced by a number of documented, independent events.

Sexual Harassment is a Broader Problem

IMO, the gender problem is one of sweeping generality for all male-dominated fields, hence for professional science communities. It is partially a mistake to focus narrowly on skeptic conferences and specific incidents or individual accusations. To me these reports are very discouraging and unfortunate, but also not surprising. There is evidence that somewhere on the order of 6% of men admit to having made coercive sexual advances, and one predator can be responsible for many assaults in a short time. If you bring together 1000 men at an event, statistically you can expect to have 60 potential predators in the crowd. In a week-long event, this creates an opportunity for perhaps 600 gropes, leers, slurs or assaults. If there are only 100 women at the event, we can reasonably expect most of them to experience one or more undesirable encounters. So it isn’t surprising that these events occur, and if we want to minimize their impact or severity, then some counter-measures should be in place.

I want to pause and clarify something that should be obvious: A convention or conference is a professional event, even if it organized by a popular organization and open to the general public. Any person attending (and paying registration fees for) a professional event is entitled to receive a professional experience. I once heard that a good way to behave professionally is to treat everyone like they are your boss. It is a hard standard to meet but a worthy aspiration. I wouldn’t risk being lewd toward my boss and I would not be pleased to see lewd behavior coming from a subordinate.

Unfortunately the “boss principle” is not widely applied at conferences and conventions. The fact is that sexual harassment, discrimination and intimidation are sweeping problems in many STEM professional communities; it is a well documented information technology, for example, involving events like DEFCON, ApacheCon, Oreilly conferences and elsewhere. Compare these two accounts:

Account 1, from ApacheCon:

“I tried to push him off and told him I wasn’t interested … He responded by jamming his hand into my underwear and fumbling,” she wrote. It was the third time that year that she’d been assaulted at a tech conference, according to her friend Valerie Aurora, a 35-year-old Bay Area computer programmer turned activist who has worked for several big-name tech companies, including Sun Microsystems and Red Hat. It wasn’t even the worst indignity Shirley would suffer. “After she named the man on her blog,” Aurora says, “thousands of people attacked her for ‘naming and shaming.’ They wrote she was fat and ugly and deserved to be raped.”

Account 2, from The Amazing Meeting (reported by Ashley Paramore)

<Video Link>  

The incident occurred at a suite party during the James Randi Educational Foundation’s annual The Amaz!ng Meeting last year. Paramore said that a former friend — who she referred to only as “Jim Bob” — was chatting with her when he got “touchy” and eventually put his hand up her skirt. Paramore repeatedly moved away to prevent “Jim Bob” from grabbing her buttocks. Later when Paramore was sitting on a bed, “Jim Bob” unexpectedly pushed her down and again put his hand up her skirt. She repeatedly told him to stop and he complied. “Jim Bob” asked if Paramore wanted to come back to his room, an offer which was declined, and then insisted he act like a “gentleman” by escorting her back to her hotel room. Paramore agreed to let “Jim Bob” walk her back to her room, but she quickly realized this was an accident. She managed to ditch “Jim Bob” when he wasn’t looking. “Jim Bob touched the no-no spots on the doll,” Paramore explained. “I said no both verbally and non-verbally throughout this process, and he still tried to actively pursue me and get me to a place where we would be alone. Not cool, bro.”

Read more at The Raw Story.

This is a story that plays out in many, many conferences. I have experienced it in “ivory tower” professional gatherings attended exclusively by PhD-holding scientists and their graduate students. Through my career I have received numerous reports of assaults at conferences, in university labs and offices, and in private workplaces. I have even played referee more than once to steer a drunk predator away from vulnerable students.

I also think the problem gets worse for highly globalized fields. Scientific professionals come from many countries and cultures around the globe, many of which are not on the same page as us with regard to gender equity. I have at times had male students who refused to work with female lab partners. I even once employed a graduate student who had difficulty working with women in my research team. Guys like that are present, lurking in every technical society, and nothing prevents them from rising to leadership positions.

In the press, problems of gender equity are usually treated as a problem of salary and promotion. This completely misses the deeper, uglier problem that women are so often disrespected and even assaulted in their professional roles. This is the BIG PROBLEM, it is everywhere, and in my opinion general problems need general solutions. I wish we saw more constructive, big-picture discussion in the skeptic community, since it brings together many professionals from a diversity of scientific backgrounds. There’s potential to address a grand problem in a unique way.

Schisming Skeptics

In-fighting and self-destruction is nothing new in the skeptic community. Years ago, I used to be active on the Internet Infidels discussion forum, which underwent a massive political upheaval while I wasn’t looking. Some of the strange history was documented by the Spanish Inquisitor and can also be found on other forum threads. Shortly thereafter, a meltdown occurred at the Richard Dawkins Foundation discussion forum. Skeptics and Atheists seem consistently unable to play nicely with each other, and the communities seem to divide, grow, destabilize and die on a rapid cycle, like bacteria. This process is an annoying distraction that sucks attention away from the topics that supposedly unify the community.

2 thoughts on “Sexism and Schism in the Skeptic Community

  1. Pingback: Dissecting the debate over PZ’s grenade | Chris Winstead

  2. Pingback: Dissecting the debate over PZ’s grenade | Fair Coin Toss

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