By Keir Liddle
“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.