There were some Muslim protesters at the Global Atheist Convention yelling and chanting about how we’re all going to hell. They were all male of course, and for a while the crowd of atheists, myself included, started chanting back at them; “Where are your women? Where are your women?” But later on I got to thinking about it… where were our women? Sure, there were hundreds of women among us, but there’s no denying it – the Global Atheist Convention was a bit of a sausage fest. And I think that’s reflective of the atheism/skepticism movement as a whole. Why is that? It’s the source of much cognitive dissonance for me whenever I think about it. Whenever I’m beginning to settle on a conclusion I’m pulled in a different direction by another train of thought. That might be because there are many different factors at work here.
One factor, as fellow heathen FearBlandness suggested, (if you’re not subscribed to her youtube channel you should be) might be that women are more heavily involved in family matters, and if their atheism disrupts that, they would tend not to ‘come out’.
[Update: FearBlandness has since posted a video with her take on the issue, click here to watch]
I’ve got some weak evidence for what I think is another big factor; the internets, and how its use varies between the sexes.
I think it’s safe to say that this fast-growing movement of outspoken atheists was born on the internet. Sure, there was the collection of atheistic books that the so called Four Horseman of the Anti-Apocalypse (the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett) published, which sparked the term “New Atheists“, but I think most people found out about those books and authors through the internet, and the controversy they stirred therein. There are countless hours of content on youtube for each of these authors. And there is a veritable hoard of atheism themed youtube channels. Not to mention the huge atheism subsection on sites such as reddit.
So what I’m getting at is that if the movement was born from the internet following, and the internet following is unproportionately male, then it’s no wonder we end up with a sausage fest at our gatherings.
So then, is the internet following indeed mostly male?
Some U.S. data I found from 2006 does suggest a majority of male users:
Recent figures from Nielsen Netratings and comScore Media Metrix indicate that YouTube’s gender ratio is approximately 60% male, 40% female.
“Men are 20 percent more likely to visit YouTube than women… Visitors between 12-17 years old index the highest among the various age groups… They are nearly 1.5 times more likely than the average Web user to go to YouTube.”
(source: http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview/id/760196.html )
2006 data might be highly relevant too, since that’s when the ‘New Atheists’ started making their mark. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 51 weeks was published that year, following his documentary The Root of All Evil. Sam Harris’s book Letter to a Christian Nation was published that year, and two years prior to that was his book The End of Faith. Daniel C. Dennett also weighed in that year with Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
And then in 2007 was the masterpiece by Christopher Hitchens (was there anything the man did that was not a masterpiece?): God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
I also found this data interesting:
It indicates that while female users dominate social networking sites, males hold the majority on sites such as Slashdot, Reddit and Digg, which are all arenas in which the news and controversial issues of the day are discussed, which would include the topic of atheism, especially so on Reddit.
So if I’m right, why is this so? I found some possibly outdated data that might give some hints:
American research http://www.cpsr.org/publications/newsletters/issues/2000/Winter2000/herring.html found that in online discussion groups women are more likely to thank, appreciate and apologise, and to be upset by violations of politeness. Predominantly female groups may have more, and more strictly enforced, posting rules designed to ensure the maintenance of a civil environment. In contrast, men generally appear to be less concerned with politeness. They post criticisms and insults, violate online rules of conduct, tolerate or even enjoy flaming, and tend to be more concerned about threats to freedom of expression than with attending to others’ social face.
In mixed-sex public discussion groups, females were found to post fewer messages, and to be less likely to persist in posting when their messages received no response. Even when they persisted, they received fewer responses from others (both females and males), and did not control the topic or the terms of the discussion except in groups where women made up a clear majority of participants.
So basically, it might be because men (not all, of course, but it only takes a few) are being complete dicks in online forums, so that women find themselves uncomfortable and don’t participate, and therefore don’t get caught up in the movement.
And this problem that hinders women getting involved might be on top of another much bigger problem, the fact that we’re mostly, in some way or another, nerds. And I’m heavily generalising here, but nerds tend to be mostly male (and white) as well. Why? For me, it’s mostly my interest in science that makes me a nerd, and as far as I’ve seen there’s a lot more science nerd blokes than ladies. This article from livescience address why that might be the case:
In elementary school about as many girls as boys have positive attitudes toward science. A recent study of fourth graders showed that 66 percent of girls and 68 percent of boys reported liking science. But something else starts happening in elementary school. By second grade, when students (both boys and girls) are asked to draw a scientist, most portray a white male in a lab coat. Any woman scientist they draw looks severe and not very happy. The persistence of the stereotypes start to turn girls off, and by eighth grade, boys are twice as interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers as girls are. The female attrition continues throughout high school, college and even the work force. Women with STEM higher education degrees are twice as likely to leave a scientific or engineering job as men with comparable STEM degrees.
So, ultimately, the cause may be the sexism ingrained in our society. PZ Myers wrote here about sexism in the atheist movement. It does exist. But I don’t think we’re more guilty than than society as a whole.
And like I said, we’re nerds. Not usually credited with social skills, especially not with the opposite sex. It might be that we’re either too nervous around women to even talk to them, or get so excited by their rare presence that we fawn over them. Both cases are not equal treatment. Control yourselves, nerds! You want the nerd girl yes, but the best way for you to get a nerd girl is to encourage more girls to be nerds! And the current tactics obviously do not work.
Us bloke nerds need to raise our consciousness as a whole. Be aware and reflective of how you are treating women. Would you have acted that way toward a bloke? If not, why not? Make women feel welcome, but don’t fawn over them. That will just make them uncomfortable. And don’t ignore them either. Don’t talk over them in conversations, let them speak. And without violating the ‘putting them on a pedestal’ thing, give them credit where credit is due. The more female atheists that rise to prominence, the more that will be encouraged to get involved.
Basically, in conclusion: Don’t be a dick!
I’m quite possibly wrong or ignorant about many things in this post, if I am let me know in the comments.