Main Image Credit: Classic Blag Hag
The American Secular Census is something I had seen but in which I had not participated before today because I am mostly interested in seeing the results without someone as (ahem) loud as I am skewing it in any possible way. Many of us here at Skepchick felt the same and did not join.
As it turns out, we didn’t need to participate for the data to corroborate the utterly shocking conclusion that being a secular American is very different for women than it is for men, especially when it comes to participating in organized secularism.
The “where the ladies at?” question is sometimes answered with a dismissive “it’s a guy thing” response. The notion that there are far fewer skeptical and/or atheistic women than there are such men is taken to be canon among many involved in said movements. According to the data, while there are more men than women (about 58% vs. 42%), the gap isn’t big enough to easily explain the disparity in leadership that, while closing, is still an issue.
Women outnumber men in terms of having participated in the secular movement and then leaving. Related to their lack of participation, women are far more likely to cite “Bad experience with group, person, or event.” Based on what others as well as myself have experienced, this is not at all an unheard-of claim.
The most (actually) surprising data is in regards to women’s participation in secular vs. religious communities:
Regardless of gender, all respondents who are or have been involved in the secular movement are asked: Have you ever felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement? Women outnumber men 62%/34% in responding “Yes.” It is worth noting that women do not outnumber men when asked the same question about religious organizations with which they’ve been associated. It appears they are less comfortable in secular groups than in the churches they left.
The emphasis is mine. Despite the fact that secular groups target religious groups as seething hotbeds of sexism, male chauvinism and misogyny, some women are somehow more comfortable in them than in secular groups. This plays out in the numbers of women vs. men who maintain religious identity and/or affiliation despite a lack of faith: women definitely outnumber men.
How some women (but no men) cite “Can’t get over my conditioning that religion is good and secularism is bad” as a reason that they do not participate in organized secularism could have something to do with their lack of comfort in secular groups. However, those who chose that answer include women who do not participate and have not in the past, while the data on how unwelcoming, discriminatory, or harmful the secular movement has been to women comes from only women who have participated or who continue to participate. Leftover guilt or shame does not explain it, at least not in full.
Other possible explanations include how secular groups are probably more likely to involve mixed-gender rather than gender-segregated events and how complaints about sexism made by women in secular groups cannot be internally self-censored using religious dogma. In other words, because there is no Women’s Auxiliary or explicit precedent for patriarchy in secular groups, the misogyny is not so easily avoided or dismissed as it is in religious groups.
Discomfort and harassment aside, there also seems to be a difference in the goals of secular women as opposed to what goals are promoted by secular organizations:
Women seem to want groups that do more than criticize religion. They are attracted to positive messages and education. They’d like their groups to share their values and take positions that reflect those values. They’d like their interactions to be positive; they seem quite willing to abandon groups where they have had to deal with problem behavior, including unwanted advances. They could sometimes use some help with childcare.
Here at Skepchick, many of us enjoy gatherings like CONvergence or Geek Girl Con because they give us the opportunity to interact with people who wouldn’t otherwise hear about secularism and skepticism as well as to do something beyond criticize something to an audience that already has expressed their explicit agreement with us simply by attending the event in the first place.
If groups really do want more women to participate, then, there needs to be more community-building and positive action beyond criticism of religion. If such action is taken by more groups, then this recommendation will hopefully become unnecessary:
And while they are atheists (the most common identifier among both men and women), they are more likely than men to attend church or use a religious identity — so groups where there is hostility or ridicule about religious participation are probably not going to feel welcoming to women.
For the record, I joined the American Secular Census today and encourage all to do so as well, as long as you give honest answers based on sincere self-reflection — even those of you who are reading this as rage-fodder. In a STEM-focused and data-driven community like skepticism, more information couldn’t hurt.
At the very least, it’s getting much harder to deny that something is afoot in regards to secularism and gender.
EDIT: Added main photo credit. I did not create Atheist Barbie, Jen McCreight did.