Atheists Talk: Melody Hensley on the Women in Secularism Conference

I usually post these on Fridays, but this Sunday, I’m doing the interview rather than just hosting. That means you get to participate more than usual. If you have questions you’d like asked during the show, leave a comment. I can’t promise we’ll get them all in, but we’ll do what we can.

2011 was an interesting year for women in the secularism movement. We were more visible than we’ve ever been, both in the U.S. and across the world. At the same time, a simple request to respect women’s wishes with regard to being hit on at atheist events provoked months of discussion, both positive and very, very negative.

In the middle of all of this, the Center for Inquiry announced that they would be hosting the first Women in Secularism conference May 18-20 of this year in Washington, DC. The list of speakers is diverse and highly accomplished. The reaction to the announcement was…varied.

This conference is the brainchild of the Executive Director of the DC branch of the Center for Inquiry, Melody Hensley. Join us this Sunday as we discuss with Melody the impetus for the conference, the contributions of women to the secularism movement, and what attendees can expect from the conference.

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Atheists Talk: Melody Hensley on the Women in Secularism Conference

23 thoughts on “Atheists Talk: Melody Hensley on the Women in Secularism Conference

  1. 1

    This is very exciting! I’m pumped to hear your interview with Melody Hensley. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to swing the conference in May, but it’s on my list of 2012 events that I’d like to attend.

  2. 5

    There seems to be something ‘off’ about this. I think it’s great that there are women in secularism, but in the end, so what? Do women really need this masturbatory congratulationism? Cool that there are women in this movement, by why do they need a party? I’m not saying there aren’t exceptional women in secularism, there are. But this seems to be celebrating the fact that they are women, more importantly than it celebrates the fact that they are exceptional.

    After the Mallorie Nasrallah incident, again and again we were told “no one is asking for special treatment” and any claims that we specially placating women, and pinking up the place were summarily dismissed. This however seems to be a perfect example of that. Especially considering the theme of the .org is pink. And is a conference for women specifically at the exclusion of men.

    So what is the deal? Do women want to be equals here, or do they want special recognition simply for the fact of being born female?

  3. 6

    First off, if you think you masturbate by going to a conference, you’re doing it wrong.

    Secondly, are you making the claim that this conference is unnecessary because there’s already parity here?

  4. 7

    I do think if i went to a conference “white men in secularism” in which we discussed and celebrated being white men and atheist, and all the speakers were white men. Yes is say that would be a form of masturbation.

    I’m not sure what you mean about parity. Numbers? Representation?

    do we need to celebrate the fact that we have women here? Should all types of special interest groups around the world celebrate the fact they have women? When do other minorities get conventions to celebrate their participation in a movement that really doesn’t need these distinctions in the first place.

  5. 8

    Feel free to point me to comments you’ve made anywhere that people are promoting conferences of white male atheists talking about being white male atheists to tell them they’re being masturbatory. I’d love to see that you apply this equally.

    Which definition of “parity” did you need to use to argue that it exists?

  6. 9

    The great thing is, i don’t have to point these out, because no one proposes them. To me it looks like we have this two tier system, one that caters to men and women, and additionally one that targets women. We have for example, the atheist experience, a male and female cast that does not attempt to target based on gender, then we have atheist bitches which has female hosts targeting a female audience. We have SGU or FTB comprising male and female for both male and female audience, then we have skepchick which is for females. w have skepticon, again male/female, then we have women in secularism for the same as above.

    Are women a special breed of skeptic that they require an exclusive womens corner in addition to the non gender specific of the other platforms? I don’t know.

    As for parity,I haven’t said it exists. But should it? There are less female voices in the secular movement, and that seems correct considering there are less female skeptics, and that seems correct considering women in general are less likely to be atheists. proportional representation seems like the fairest measure. If the numbers were something like 70/30(hypothetical but probably close) male/female atheists in the general population, for whatever reason physiological or cultural, then a 70/30 turnout at events means we are doing ok, and ifwe say that men and women are equally talented speakers/ writers etc. then if we have a 7/3 ratio of speakers at conferences, it would be fair to assume we are neither marginalizing women nor pandering to them unnecessarily.

    If we want parity, 50/50 in our speakers, that means our aim is to over ride the numbers and institute affirmative action, which i believe is horribly condescending. If we want parity of overall members, but the general population of non believers is still 70/30 then we are expending extra resources to attempt to over represent a minority group, which means those resources were poorly spent and came at the cost of more overall members at a realistic representation. There was a reason i asked for a definition of parity, and i suspect you withheld that because it makes it harder for me to know your position and make an effective case.

  7. 10

    According to the ARIS survey, the numbers are 60/40, not 70/30. At the 2011 CSIcon, the speakers were 24% women. At the 2011 Skepticon, women were 25% of the speakers. At the 2012 American Atheists National Convention, they will be 26% of the speakers. This is after years of lobbying for parity. It was not all that long ago that these conferences were almost if not completely exclusively male. Perhaps you simply didn’t notice?

    You know it’s not difficult to find these numbers before you start claiming equal representation and “masturbation,” right?

  8. 12

    Or below.

    I was straight up on admitting those numbers were hypothetical. I did that because i was on a bus responding on my phone. The point stands because the hypothetical is relevant in any case unless the split is actually 50/50

    Although there are other studies which show more of a 80/20 split for atheists. Your study used “nones” of those “nones” 36% of females believed in a god. So this is not going to be exactly representative. There was another study done in 2010 By Discover that put the split 80/20. This is not going to be exactly representative either, as it accounts atheism, while most skeptics and secularists are atheists, some are agnostics. So we have a number somewhere between 80/20 and 60/40. As i said before my number was hypothetical, but probably close.

    Either way, you again have refused to define what you call parity.

    Do you want a 50/50 split with speakers? with audiences? Even though this would be unrepresentative of the larger population, and most likely a case of affirmative action were we to set that goal for speakers?

    Although 25% is still low, you are getting close to representative parity. And while it was lamentable that previous conferences were almost exclusively dominated by men, it is unlikely that this was a policy, nor were these conferences specifically to self congratulate the achievements of men in secularism to the exclusion of all else.(what would you think about a conference in which no women speakers were invited, out of policy?). It is far more likely that it was a reflection of demographics. To give some perspective, a list of skeptical organisations from wiki; Australian Skeptics,Brights movement, Center for Inquiry, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry,New England, ,Skeptical Society,New Zealand Skeptics,James Randi Educational Foundation,Rationalist International, The Skeptics Society,IIG.
    All of these, but two were founded exclusively by men. The demographics have changed since then, and representation has changed to reflect that, we do now have notable women in this movement, but you shouldn’t expect parity as a matter of fact, they need to reflect real numbers.

    While it is great that women’s voices are being heard in this community. Having conferences today where the speakers are 0/100 split female. Is exactly not what parity is.

    And yes, i do still think having a conference in which a set of speakers from a minority group speak at the deliberate exclusion of all others. With the express purpose of that conference to ‘celebrate’ contributions to the movement by that minority is masturbation.

    Also, check this out
    exactly 50/50.

    Your numbers for skepticon 2011 are underestimated too.

  9. 13

    Earl, you were the one making the case that we don’t need a women in atheism conference. I asked whether you were making the case that we had parity. If you’re not, then the only case you have left is that minorities having conferences is “masturbation,” which should disqualify all atheists from having conferences.

  10. 14

    The closer to the background population (e.g. 51% women) you make the speakers, the more likely you are to give outsiders looking in the impression that the movement is inviting to everyone. And the more inviting it is to everyone, rather than looking like a “stodgy old boys club”, the more likely the atheist or skeptic populations will skew from where they are now — whatever those numbers — toward the background population.

    If you want to fix the fact that there are fewer women than men in the skeptic or atheist population, you do it by making it less uninviting to women. And it’s uninviting because, from the outside, until recently, it has in fact looked exactly like a “stodgy old boys club”.

    50/50 is perfectly fine by me, thank you very much.

  11. 15

    Affirmative action basically. Placing people in high positions not based on merit, but based on their gender. An example is that if there are two potential speakers, both have very good subjects and are very talented, then the female will be chosen because she is female. It could even be so that the male’s topic and lecture is clearly superior than the woman’s, but she will be chosen because it is more important to be ‘perceived’ as ‘down with women’ than it is to have quality speakers.

    The background number of women is irrelevant, there is clearly something beyond a local problem with perceived sexism in US secularism. In every country except 4, there is a clear and large divide between males and females in regards to atheism. The idea that it is caused by a sexist structure is mind boggling also, considering that all the major religions are inherently sexist and patriarchal. If women aren’t leaving their religions in any significant amount due to complaints of systematic and divine sexism, having a few extra women speak at secular conferences certainly isn’t going to make a difference. The simple fact is that whether they belong to a like minded community or not, women as atheists make up a (large) minority. And unless we can find the root cause of why women tend to stick to (sexist)religions more than men and address that effectively, we need to accept those numbers as facts of life.

    We can just as easily say ‘we want to look inviting to minorities,’ and set quotas for the amount of minorities speaking at events. That is a pretty damn condescending thing to do, and does nothing really to improve our community, or futher our goals, it just might make us look ‘less racist’

    It is horrible idea, and it has nothing to do with equality, it is specifically about granting privilege to a single group based on the conditions of their birth. That appears to me the very definition of sexism.

  12. 16

    Earl, you were the one making the case that we don’t need a women in atheism conference. I asked whether you were making the case that we had parity.

    And I’m asking you again to define parity.

    If you’re not, then the only case you have left is that minorities having conferences is “masturbation,” which should disqualify all atheists from having conferences.

    You know this wasn’t my argument, i know you know this because your second response to me showed you had at least somewhat of an understanding of my argument. Mainly that of self congratulation, and the purposeful exclusion of the majority of the community. I also think considering the CFI is funded by donations, by both men and women, and to use its resources for a conference that specifically excludes participation by the majority of those donors is also straight up rude.

    You have been fairly hands off in this discussion, that’s your prerogative, but i would be interested in your opinions on these subjects.

  13. 17

    Affirmative action basically. Placing people in high positions not based on merit, but based on their gender.

    I don’t know where you get even remotely close to that, given the wealth of exceptional speakers from both genders, and how you can fill every single slot with an exceptional speaker picking either gender in isolation.

  14. 18

    You know, reading through Earl’s comments I’m struck by something. He is in a way arguing both for “affirmative action*” implicitly while explicitly misrepresenting the other side as wanting to practice affirmative action. Let me explain.

    Earl says he thinks the only fair distribution of speakers is proportional to the percentage of men and women in the atheist and skeptical communities. That is to say, that he is explicitly arguing for quotas in who has a voice, while saying that those who are trying to be mindful of inclusive objectives are ignoring qualification in favor of quotas.

    The opposite is actually true. If we were truly being blind to gender as he suggests, you could very well end up with a 9:1 ratio of female to male speakers assuming you were looking solely at qualifications alone. (As it’s entirely possible that without unconscious bias, the available speakers best qualified could be women.) So by insisting that we aim for an ideal representation of 7:3 or something similar, he is arguing for “affirmative action” quotas.

    Of course, Stephanie and Jason are sensibly pointing out that oratorical ability, published works or acclaim within their movements should not be the only criteria by which we form these groups. (Particularly because these things, and our perception of them, are highly influenced by internalized sexist attitudes in greater society.) One of the things they’re arguing we consider is whether the composition helps us successfully achieve stated goals. By that measure, minority speakers are better equipped-better qualified-than their dominant group counterparts.

    Moreover, on a purely skeptical viewpoint, one might argue that minorities (sociologically speaking, since by percentage, women are hardly a minority) are better at ridding themselves of irrationally held assumptions tied to privilege because they are less likely to be blind to harmful and scientifically unsupported injustices.

    * Note that this is a misrepresentation of this term meant to demonize and it makes me crazy. Earl is referring to strict quotas, and not affirmative action as it functions in reality. Actual affirmative action is not simply the idea that your workforce should be representative of the local population by percentages (quotas) but also includes other elements. One of the requirements is that employers advertise for jobs in varied communities to get a range of qualified applicants. For example, you cannot simply advertise a new high paying job in publications that are only circulated in affluent, mostly white circles and meet standards of affirmative action. Affirmative action is a varied group of protections meant to ensure that you provide equal opportunity to people who are not privileged in the current inequitable social system.

  15. 19

    Earl –

    I am heavily involved right now, in the process of building a secular community in my hometown. I host a regular event for CFI and occasionally attend a non-theist meet-up group from I am in the process of essentially coopting the latter group and exploiting the former, so as to have regular family friendly events (I’m a single mom, dad, all my kids have sort of parent). Women in secular communities is an important issue to me, because women are a necessary component to the sort of community we are trying to foster here.

    It has taken a lot of work to build what little we have thus far. There are a hell of a lot more women who are atheists/skeptics, than there are women who actually come out to meet-up type groups. There are a hell of a lot more women who are interested in coming to these sorts of events, than there are coming to them. You’re seriously missing the point of “women don’t want to be treated differently.” The problem is that women are being treated differently and would like men to fucking stop.

    They are having this conference because women have an important role to play in secular communities. I see a hell of a lot of men who are married or partnered with a woman we never get to meet. Not because their partners aren’t atheists, but because they are uncomfortable. For some reason a lot of secular groups fail utterly at something a lot of churches have down to a science – making both sexes feel welcome. Probably in part because most churches don’t have discussion groups that inevitably drift into heavily sexualized topics when there are women around (just one example of why women end up feeling uncomfortable).

    There are a lot of challenges involved in building secular communities, a topic I am actually going to start blogging about. Infrastructure is a huge issue, though I think the Unitarian Universalists may come to our rescue on that count. Getting people who have expressed an interest in volunteering to actually, you know, volunteer is another. Dealing with the problems related to combining skeptics and atheists is a oddly difficult problem. But larger than all of them, with the possible exception of that last, is getting women involved and comfortable being involved.

    There are a lot of secular families who want to have the opportunities to do things with other. I am one of those people and because I am one of those people – and because I am actively involved in trying to build a community wherein that is possible, I not only see the value in this conference, I wish I could attend. I understand that you don’t see it, don’t see the need – whatthefuckever and I support your right not to see it and not to care. But in your not caring, I really wish you would just shut the fuck up and let those of us who do see the need get on with it.

    Because when it comes down to it, you’re largely the problem that needs addressing. And it’s sad because you obviously don’t want to be a part of the communities many of us are building. That you don’t want to be a part of it is fine – more power to you. What I cannot comprehend, is why you would want to hamper the efforts of those of us who actually want these communities in building them.

    Fuck you. I’m not invading whatever communities you are a part of, trying to tell you to do something different – telling you you’re doing it wrong. I don’t want the same sorts of communities that you do, but I respect your right to have them.

    So why the hell can’t you respect our right to build the communities we want?

  16. 21

    F @20 –

    Actually and quite ironically, white men are seriously underrepresented in gender studies, especially in men’s studies. Not strictly relevant to this context, but both true and sad nonetheless.

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