How should we deal with harassment in skepticism?

By Keir Liddle

The skeptical community is aflame once again over the issue of sexual harassment following the remarks of JREF president DJ Grothe in response to a 50% reduction in female attendance at TAM 2012.

Grothe said the following on a Facebook discussion:

“Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.) We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking, and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.

This has caused Rebecca Watson of Skepchick to announce she will no longer be speaking at or attending TAM 2012 and Greg Laden to call for Grothes resignation as head of the James Randi Education Foundation. Personally I think that there is wrong and right on both sides here, but don’t wish to comment about that (many others will do that very ably over the next few days and weeks) I want to put forward one suggestion to try and address the underlying issues. The fallout from this and similar incidents is something that the community needs to address as a whole and simply not rumble along from crisis to crisis in this respect. I think we all want the same basic thing: an inclusive and welcoming community that promotes the virtues of science, reason and critical thinking to everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity or anything else.

There is not really room to pretend there is not a real problem with sexism and harassment in our community, as this data from the American Secular Census shows, women are 26% more likely to feel unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed at Secular events 14.4% of women have felt  unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement and the factors that most influence these worrying statistics are as follows:

77% – Words, actions, or attitudes of other participants
46% – Words, actions, or attitudes of organizers, leaders, or employees
23% – Unwanted advances by other participants
15.4% – Unwanted advances by organizers, leaders, or employees
15.4% – Programs or positions of the organization itself
8% – Choice of activity or venue

There are no, as far as I can see, data for solely skeptical events but the anecdotes prevelent in the blogosphere do little to suggest that skepticism is an island of enlightenment where these issues are concerned. So clearly there is a need for organisers to take action to and deal with the words, actions and attitudes of other participants.

The issues of harassment and the laudable “name and shame” culture in skepticism, and it’s perhaps unintended consequences, are beyond the abilities of a single blogger to solve. To tackle this issue head on requires action from events organisers and skeptical and science communication events organisers.

There seem to be two issues that need addressing here: how we tackle the attitudes within our community towards women and other minority groups and what can event organisers do to discourage such behaviour and properly address it should it occur? Events organisers have to realise that, if we want to be as inclusive and far reaching as possible, it is not enough to simply book a venue and a speaker. We need to take steps to ensure that everyone feels safe, welcome and non-threatened at our events.

To this end I would suggest events organisers work towards producing a standardised policy on harassment and discrimination and the actions that will be taken should either of these occur.  I would suggest this is centrally controlled and maintained and groups receive a “kite-mark” of sorts that indicate they take such issues seriously and deal with them appropriately. Central control would allow groups responses to these issues to be monitored and to ensure people aren’t just playing lip service to the ideals of inclusion, anti-discrimination and reducing harassment.  Though it would be a big step forward if such policies were simply adopted as standard by groups running events without centralised control or a kite mark system and indeed any attempts to introduce such a thing would require a great deal of discussion and debate.

The Geek Feminism Wiki provides a template anti-harassment policy for events and conferences which I would suggest offers an excellent starting point for thinking about formalising such policies.

I invite event organisers to comment below with their thoughts on this idea, their experiences of their own anti-harassment policies as ideally this endeavour should come from the grassroots and be developed in light of the needs and aims of our community on the ground. We need to put our heads together and think about what steps we can take to make our events as welcoming and safe for everyone who might want to attend. I think creating anti-harassment policies and taking actions against those who feel free to flout these policies and principles is one step towards building confidence that the skeptical community takes these issues seriously and will deal with those who harass and discriminate.

I think we all want skepticism to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible and I think now is the perfect time to discuss how we want to go about that.

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0 Responses to How should we deal with harassment in skepticism?

  1. Ash Pryce says:

    I think having a policy in place is an important thing to do. As an organiser I’ve been asked by speakers if we have such a policy in place. We do and it’s not a big deal to put together. It can be a simple sentence stating the organisations stance on harrassment and abuse and shows that they do take it seriously.

    We’re getting to the stage where groups are putting on bigger and more inclusive events and organisers need to show that they have their attendees and speakers welfare in mind.

    Now how far reaching the issue is people will debate over. But no one can deny that there exists *some* problem and therefore instead of the constant arguing abck and forth that these situations involve we should say “yep, I acknowledge this is how you feel in this situaiton and we take on board and will act accordingly”. even if ultimately the incident is just a misunderstanding, to ignore it gives way to bigger and genuine incidents occuring which will and clearly do put people off attending.

  2. Dalradian says:

    awareness and enforcement of anti-harassment policies is critical, so is recording and dealing with any problems or complaints straight away.

    Since the UK scene is more focused around grassroot events than big conferences, the problems will have to be address in a slightly different way esp where space is shared with general public (such as in pubs). But the principle of having clear policies of what is/ isn’t acceptable and enforcement – and for people to know who to speak to if they have a problem seems obvious.

  3. I would really like to see Edinburgh Skeptics take a lead on this. We do a lot to innovate and push forward events and conferences and I think we should build on that on more serious issues such as this.

  4. Jeffrey says:

    Harassment policies need to be put in place, but they need to be kept entirely businesslike. They shouldn’t get associated with the terms “skeptic” or “freethinking” or anything like that. That’s an unnecessary connection. We need to treat harassment just as it would be treated at a business conference: with absolute professionalism.

    Grothe’s comments are unprofessional. He should have bounced his comments off some fellow skeptics before publishing them. Watson’s response is admirable. Now, how can the JREF deal with it in a professional manner? I hope they can handle it.

  5. Ash Pryce says:

    Jeffrey, i know people who have spoken to grothe at length previously so I believe in this instance he’s badly worded it as opposed to actually being dismissive of a problem. Hopefully he’ll clarify.

    For those who wish to know, we at edinburgh Skeptics have this in place which doesn’t invoke skepticism but simply states, business like that certain behaviour will not be tolerated:

    “While we wish to promote an environment where everyone is able to put their views across, Edinburgh Skeptics will not tolerate harrassment or abuse of either speakers or attendees nor willful disruption of events.

    Anyone found to be harrassing, abusing or in any way intimidating others may be asked to leave and (where appropriate) may not be refunded”

  6. dts1979 says:

    Great work as always guys. I have to say, I have not witnessed or heard of any harassment incedents personally, other than the much reported ones like everyone else. My experience at Newcastle is that we have probably more women attending sitp events than we do guys on their own, which i hope shows that we don’t have a problem. Having said that, I am more than happy for us to adopt an anti harrasment policy, it seems a responsible thing to do.

    As Ash has already said, if people are reporting having an issue with harrasment, we need to take it seriously, rather than arguing that it doesn’t happen. Like any gathering of men and women, there will be exchanges, some innocent, some less than innocent, some appropriate and some not appropriate. We should try our best to make sure everyone feels safe and secure, while allowing the innocent and appropriate exchanges to take place.

    When I was in 12 step groups, this was a real problem. Each group dealt with the issue in its own way. While it is impossible to stop harrasment going on, it should be made an issue. Some 12 step groups read out a pre prepared statement at the start of each meeting along the lines of make sure you don’t make any unwanted advances towards people. While this didn’t always stop it, it put a marker down and any behavior deemed unacceptable was dealt with by the group, or one of its representitives. Something similar to this could easily be adopted.

    Once again guys, thanks for taking a rational lead on another issue which is not always dealt with rationally.


  7. pixie359 says:

    I agree that this is something we need to think about – I am lucky that I have not seen or been told of any problems at our events, and I am fairly happy that we would be able to deal with this kind of a situation. Having something written down can act as a reminder or warning if required, and lets you demonstrate impartiality.

    If anyone wants to put a form of words together, I’d be happy to look over them.

    One question though – if we are agreeing to a single policy on this, should we think about other equivalent areas? At what point should the expectations of a SitP group be codified, and to what extent?

  8. Ash Pryce says:

    I’d also add that even if there had been zero reports ever throughout the history of skepticism, anti-harrassment policies are STILL good things. Any organisation should really have one. It lays out what behaviour is and isn’t acceptable.

    Now those policies may not stop such behaviour happening, but having them reassures people that action will be taken and issues will not be dismissed.

  9. I think that groups should be free to retain local flavour but I do think there are areas where we can come together and present a united front (so to speak) on certain issues. As it sends a stronger message that we are working together to deal with things like this.

    Though really just a list of groups who have such policies (doesn’t have to be the same policy) would be a good start and a positive step I think.

    I don’t think it is as big an issue in the UK (I hope not anyway) but it might be good to head it off at the pass before we find ourselves in a similar situation to the US.

  10. Or I think it’s important to have a commitment to saying we are against harassment etc even while it doesn’t seem to be a huge problem it may encourage people who may be wary of attending to attend.

  11. @paddyrex says:

    It’s an interesting post with some good ideas but I’m not sure how they fit to a standard sitp model. I am prepared to be wrong on all of this so please feel free to shoot me down.

    A policy is only really workable if people agree to it. This might work in a ticketed event but we have people that wander in on spec. Do we need to sit them down and have them agree to a policy first, or is it enough just to add it to our websites or display it at the entrance?

    How would the centralised aspect of monitoring and implementing it work? Who would this be, how would they investigate and what repercussions would they be imposing for groups they felt didn’t conform? How would the body be established and how would it work? Despite having similar aims and ethos the sitp phenomena has struck me as being a bunch of like-minded individuals more than a cohesive movement. Again I#m probably wrong.

    I am not anti-anti-harassment, but the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics and I’m sure others do this in-between busy jobs and hectic family life. We do our best to promote inclusiveness and welcome all people equally. No harassment is tolerated.

    Our events are fun, thought provoking and thrown together. I appreciate the need to be prepared to address issues as they arise but worry about the effects that applying added layers of bureaucracy and centralisation would have on that. I’ll give this more thought but at this point, like dts1979 I would favour dealing with issues as a group.

  12. @paddyrex says:

    I’m so slow putting thoughts down, there have been five responses since I started mine. Sorry if I’m not keeping up with the flow.

  13. Ash Pryce says:


    On the site and door is great – could also have a holding slide in place on the screen so evryone sees it. We’re putting it as part of our intro slides that play before each talk.

  14. @christheneck says:

    I’d support the idea and the drafting of a model policy for groups to base their own policies on but agree that it should be administrated at a local level.

    People may occasionally behave in a dickish way not through malice but through ignorance, lack of social skills, momentary thoughtlessness etc.. The old school way to deal with issues was, at most, a quiet talking to from someone hopefully less dickish but who may have their own opinions on what may or may not be acceptable. Often it would be a shrug of the shoulders and saying “Well, that’s just Bert/Bertha. Best to avoid”.

    A document would cut out any grey areas and hopefully assure people that should they highlight an issue they would be treated fairly along specified lines. The reported occurences are few and far between so dealing with any issues wouldn’t be time consuming.

    It’s perfectly possible an individual may not being aware of such a policy but I don’t believe that would be a defense against inappropriate behaviour. If they contravene it they will be made aware of it. If however they commit a major infringement such as inappropriate physical contact or deliberate intimidation thay will be well aware and should expect to be ejected or even banned.

    I would hope it would move us more towards a situation where reporting is acceptable, dickishness is unacceptable and people feel safer.

    I’d offer a draft but I’m snowed under until the middle of the month.

  15. Ep says:

    This all makes me so glad that I’m not in the skeptical community!

  16. Ash Pryce says:

    Ep – this type of thing goes on in all communities.

  17. The ability to disagree, dislike, criticise, and challenge without being labelled a misogynist would be a nice policy to have too. “Misogynist” is a strong, serious label, so requires strong, serious evidence to back it up.

    Overuse of this word, and a certain amount of scaremongering by Watson et al, are PART of the problem. The other part being the behaviour of a few men who have acted inappropriately. Nothing wrong, IMO, with naming and shaming them if what they did was bad enough, but to label almost any man who strongly argues against the skepchick POV with such a term is counter-productive, polarising, and perpetuates the problem further.

    Of course, I could be wrong, and RW is 100% right every time she makes a claim, insults someone, or writes a blogpost, but probably not. I also know that I’ve been guilty of attacking the person when I’m really against their words/behaviours, and for this I have apologised. But, the abuse I’ve received for it has not been proportionate to the language I have personally used, so the irony and hypocrisy on show in some quarters is palpable.

    I agree with Ash, above, where he says that a) This type of thing goes on in all communities (so is a social issue, rather than just a skeptic one), and b) even if there had been zero reports ever throughout the history of skepticism, anti-harrassment policies are STILL good things. Any organisation should really have one. There’s no logical reason to be against the idea of having an accepted concensus of appropriate behaviours.

  18. Original Cindy says:

    Personal beefs with me aside, Keir. Asking someone on a date is not sexual harassment. I get asked out by males on a daily basis, I smile, lie and say; “I’m sorry, I have a boyfriend”. I am polite to them and they’re polite to me, end of situation. The complainer of sexual harassment is a clear man-hater and she’s making the chickens come home to roost. The guy had beer goggles on and probably regrets his behaviour, a great deal. How on earth do people meet future spouses or create children without asking someone on a date?

  19. Ideally this post is not intended to become a discussion of who is right and who is wrong but to address the wider issue.

  20. Original Cindy says:

    Sexism is a problem among the skeptical community, people take one look at my avatar or tumblr blog and see cleavage and doubt that I have a degree. Would they doubt I have a degree if I was a man taking topless pictures? I have no idea why any skeptic doubts that I have a degree as in my family EVERYONE goes to university and gets one because we’re academically capable of attaining one. I have never come on Twitter and told a lie because you get caught out so I just don’t do it, unfortunately there’s a skeptic who doesn’t do the same lol ;-). A drunk man asked a woman on a date, big deal. She turned him down, that was the end. Would he have asked her out if he was sober? Probably not. I for one was left with an opinion expressed by Richard Dawkins that I agreed with wholeheartedly, after this whole over-blown thing. She ought to be thankful

  21. Ed Cara says:

    Well, that last opinion about sums up the problem with sexism in our social communities.

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