[#wiscfi] Liveblog: Gender Equality in the Secular Movement

Second panel of the day! I just got here…and left my phone in the hotel. Womp womp.

Also, there’s a whole tub of hummus next to the projector. CAN I HAZ?


On the panel: Stephanie Zvan, Debbie Goddard, Ophelia Benson, Elizabeth Cornwell.

Moderator: Greta Christina

Stephanie introduces herself as perhaps most known for suggesting anti-harassment policies. Audience cheers.

Greta: First question–what does success in terms of gender equality in the secular movement look like? What are you goals?

Stephanie says that it’s more than numbers. When we have gender equality in the movement, we’d have a conference where we didn’t start out with an opening statement encouraging us to not take it too far. Where we can screw up and not have it hanging over our heads for years. Where we can be just as cranky as the men. (Seriously, you could hear a pin drop during this.) ALL THE APPLAUSE.

Ophelia: to not have to start out from a basis of having to argue about whether or not we need gender equality. To have conferences that fold in the parts of this conference because they matter.

Elisabeth: Deferring to Martin Luther King: it’s not just women, it;s all of us. We heard earlier about the struggles of women in religion. It’s not just women who are oppressed by religion, men are oppressed too. (You could hear a pin drop during this, too. Probably for different reasons.)

Debbie: I’ve been asking lots of other people this this weekend. (She asked me! My answer sounded like asd;lkfjsldjfao. It was late! I was tired!) Nobody has answered. Part of the problem is that we don’t have a larger culture that looks like gender equality. So how do we conceptualize it?


Debbie: We have certain kinds of demographics that we do include! Like, when was the last time you heard someone be all “The gays, I dunno about them”? And when people do say that, we shun them. I think success could look like this.

Greta: Debbie was the first person to talk about numbers. How do you think this plays in? Should we be looking for 50/50?


Stephanie: You can’t go after numbers just to solve the problem. I’d still like to see conferences that have speakers representative of the population of the secular or atheist movement. And then we also try to improve that population.

Ophelia: I think numbers are an important metric. I mean, you can’t expect there to be constantly exactly equal gender ratios at everything. That’s irrational. But when you see a big gender gap and you do some digging…then you see hey, there’s things influencing it.

Elisabeth: There’s definitely been a shift. In at least the last ten years, in terms of both women and young people. In terms of race and economic backgrounds, etc. Whether it’s PC or not, we tend to be the ones who take care of family. We are the caretakers. Those are issues we don’t talk about. In the last two years, she’s had more and more people say that we need to do more to take care of women and families. She’s given evo psych talks about why women tend to be more religious. It’s not because they’re less intelligent…it has to do with family.

In places with high governmental support, you see much less religion. We are a volunteer nation in the US, and here, we see churches doing the volunteering.


Debbie….has briefly forgotten the question. Science has been a word that’s been used a lot. We can research things. Our brains are dummmmmmb. Especially in this movement, we like to pretend that we make rational decisions. “My music is OBJECTIVELY better than yours!”

We have a movement here–we’re just not talking about an idealistic world. We want to change the world! The numbers, the faces on our programs, they matter.

Greta: Intersectionality! Let’s talk about it. What about the inclusion of blue collar women, women of color, trans* women. Not a question…but let’s talk about it!


Debbie: talked to Krysti of Humanists of Norway. Tiny country…biggest humanist organization in the world! They provide secular christening and confirmations and stuff! More women involved than men! Humanists in Scotland highly involved in education. (We have Scottish humanists at Teen Skepchick and School of Doubt!)

Ophelia: Loves international humanists–you don’t have to write in a different language. Also, in orgs Debbie mentioned, gov sponsors them in the same way religious orgs get benefits.

Stephanie: Let’s talk about internationality and headscarves. So. Headscarves. Some women want to wear them. And we often like to talk about how women don’t ever “choose” to wear them. We need to talk about it in a way that talks about women’s autonomy. If we want to talk about more than just..walking away from a fundamentalist church, then we need to wrap our heads around talking about that in a way that is nuanced.


Greta: What do you think we have been doing right, that has helped us move towards our goals?

Elisabeth: We have seen improvement, but that’s also something we’re seeing in the general population as well. We’re trying to keep just ahead of that. Has (except for Teresa MacBain) never met atheist woman partnered with religious man. Only the opposite.  It’s, in the greater world, much more accepted for a man to be an atheist.

We need to let women know that they can be rational.

Greta: question repeat


Well, doing what Elisabeth is encouraging can be seen as a “guy thing”. It’s having a “fight with God” (what?). Women are not seen as strong enough, belligerent enough, dedicated enough, pugnacious enough. (Ack, thesauruses!) There is a strong–not necessarily conscious–belief that atheism is more of a guy thing, and less of a girl thing. The more you chip away at these buried ideas, the more you see a diverse audience.

Stephanie: We have made lots of progress. We’re complaining. (laughter) Bernice Sandler gave great talk last year: pointing things out often is the first way to change things. The immediate response isn’t necessarily the result…it’s just what you hear first. Women have been promoting each other. We have women in leadership suggesting other women. And that makes a difference. Being obnoxious about it can be okay–it works! We’re making progress by doing the things we’re told not to do.

Elisabeth: I want to talk about something we’ve done wrong. And it’s something I did. Mentions 4 Horseman DVD. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was invited to participate…and as a result, wasn’t one of the horsemen. Few people know that, but she was supposed to be a horse(…person?)


Debbie: Let’s talk about….The Amazing Meeting. Ignoring last year, for reasons obvious, let’s talk about how they did make a large change after hearing feedback about how there were no women being invited. In the past, we drew mostly from philosophers, professors, best-selling authors. That gives you a very specific pool from which to draw. One of the shifts seen at regional and student cons (as well as national) is that you see more educators, bloggers, activists, organizers.


Greta: We’re talking about something like an “affirmative action” policy. We hear about how that’s ‘lowering standards’. Can you speak to this idea?

Stephanie: [shameless plug] MN Atheists is putting on a conference soon. They almost accidentally ended up with a roster of speakers who were all women. Didn’t quite happen….they had a guy they really wanted. Lots of those people are new speakers. The fact that people are making an effort to get new speakers out there is a big deal. It makes a difference.

Ophelia: If you only invite the stars you know, you get the same soundbites. The problem of the availability bias….people become famous and invited often because they were invited previously. (Me: YAY PSYCHOLOGY)

Elisabeth: Cannot ignore the issue of people relying on Famous Speakers(tm) to provide bodies at cons to pay for cost of cons. It’s a real problem. As the base of people interested gets bigger, you have to have women rising in the ranks too. She’s thankful to the ‘bitches’ who came before her and made her path easier. We have to also be mentors to women.


Debbie: So how do you get more people than the like…twenty women you see at meetings already. You have to reach out. Example of meeting where people say “Well, it’s really sad there weren’t more black students here!” Debbie: “Well, uh, did you reach out to the black students union?” Them: “Er. Well. Uhhh.”

Also, importance of artists! Art is a way to bring people in! See: webcomics. [Me: Debbie is so badass.]

Greta: American Atheists 50th anniversary con had lots of African American participants–far and above most cons. Someone asked Amanda Knief why that was. Her answer “We asked them.” Next question: what are the consequence of not having gender equality?

Stephanie: I’ve lived through them. When you’re not represented well..when you’re one woman in a group of guys and someone comes up and says something like “Hey, here with your boyfriend?” or “Women can’t think.” or “That guy just agreed with you cuz you’re sleeping with him.” And you look around…and there’s nobody else to talk to about the experience. One of the wonderful things about this year has been making those problems visible. Being a part of a large group helps when you run into those (rare) individuals who are jerks based on your gender.  Importance of having people who have your back. Lets you take more risks in voicing your opinion. Get support when you have good ideas! And all of that makes a huge difference. There are a lot of strong women here. But we shouldn’t all have to be that strong. When we get good representation, we’re all that much more supported. And that makes a *big* difference.

Ophelia: Going to be a Debbie Downer. [womp womp]. We’re a python with an undigested meal…on the upward hill of his issue. [analogy say what?!] We still have to be aware that we’re still having to be the face that suffers backlash.

Elisabeth: If we don’t get equality, we lose. We lose, our grandchildren lose, everyone loses.


Debbie: Diversity doesn’t just mean “having more black people show up”. People don’t understand the lived experiences of others. One of the benefits of different people in our movement means learning new things. And this movement LIKES learning new things. We like collected knowledge! Moving to Buffalo meant learning about Canada! [Me: elbows Jason as audience laughed] People teach you new things! And that’s why it’s importance to shut up and listen. [Roaring audience applause.]

Example of listening to Sarah Moglia talking about how she’s harassed when she tables for SSA. Debbie asked lots of questions and learned about experience of tabling in a different body.

Without exposure to diverse perspectives, we’re ignorant.

Audience questions:

How much of gender equality is due to financial inequality? Poverty is often invisible–how do we address it?

Elisabeth: Economic issues are obviously a problem. Childcare is a big issue, something we try to address, but it often takes money. It costs a lot to come to these conferences.
Stephanie: And it’s not just *conference* expenditures. If all of your meetings are big meetings in one place, that’s a problem. Even if it’s a central location. Gas is expensive, y’all. This is why meetup is important. Have to have diversity of events and event locations.

Are women more religious as a result of having a less precarious position in society? More stable societies are less religious?

Stephanie: Yes.

Elisabeth: Social aspect has been long ignored by this movement.

Ophelia: It’s like Stockholm Syndrom [Me: not a fan of this analogy, myself.]

Greta: Should we focus on removing the binary?

Debbie: Yes. Feminism has been a pretty good source of that–we can benefit from following their lead. We need to talk about fuzzy boundaries of boxes.

Stephanie: we talk about the binary lots more when we’re on the defensive. And we do that when we are citing research…and research uses the binary a lot. That’s because they often need to have strict operational definitions.

[#wiscfi] Liveblog: Gender Equality in the Secular Movement

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