The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Convergence/Skepchicon Day 3: Women as Skeptical Activists

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 5, 2010

On the third day of Convergence/Skepchicon, I attended the “Women as Skeptical Activists” panel discussion.  On the panel were Rebecca Watson (moderator), Maria Walters, Jennifer Newport, Debbie Goddard, Carrie Iwan, and Pamela Gay.  Especially since I’m a board member of the newly-formed Women Thinking Free Foundation (WTFF), I found the discussion especially interesting.  Read on…

Women as Skeptical Activists

What does it mean to be a woman as a skeptical activist?  What does it mean to be a woman in a subculture which is predominantly male?

Pamela: There is that gender bias which is frustrating but allows you to sneak in and hear things you may not be able to do so otherwise.  What is so good about Skepchick is that it showed its okay to be smart, skeptical, and sexy.

Maria: I think my experience with the JREF there seems to be a topic of conversation about diversifying the movement.  Every year I see it getting better, where there are more women, more young people, and a few more minorities.  I’d like to see more women speakers – this last year has gotten better, and I think some of that is incumbent upon us.

Jennifer: Why is it that we need more women?  Do there need to be quotas? No, but we do need women to serve as role models for younger girls.

Carrie: I also think that a lot of what we’re dealing with is a kind of male privilege, and if the people in charge of the movement are male they are not necessarily focusing on any issues that address women specifically.

Pamela: When you look at a lot of fields, men do make up the dominant voice on both the woo and science side.  In order to move the movement into more diversity, we need role models.

[clarification of woo]

Q: Do you think the privilege question has to do with the issue of positivist science, which is more oriented towards men as opposed to women?

Debbie: I’d say yes.  I guess that there is a lot of related to brain science related to gender.  Who are the five biggest scientists we can think of… it seems to be very dominated by very white men who come from the West.  For example, there’s a feeling in Mexico that “science” is something that only the United States and Europe does.  In addition, some feminists promote this idea that women are more in touch with nature and so on which is in opposition to science.  I think we need to change science in a manner that can get more women into science.

Pamela: What was found in some research was that women in astronomy tend to write fewer papers per year, but female researchers did write fewer papers where they brought together more ideas.  This leads to a lot more citations of these “unifying” papers by women.  One of the traditional problems is that many women were not being considered for advancement because while they may have had a good impact on science, they didn’t publish as many papers.

Q: What is your role as women skeptical activists in relation to the idea that girls can’t do science?

Carrie: I think a lot of that is cultural.  I’m skeptical of some of the research about the difference between men’s & women’s brains, but I think a lot of more recent research shows that it is cultural.

Rebecca: There’s been a lot of recent research on the issue of female role models.  A recent study about girls taking a math test – in one case, the administrator of the test was a woman who was put forth as someone who really knew the material, and when compared to a control group, they did better on the exam.

Q: I’ve seen a similar approach to skepticism in that women aren’t necessarily focusing on one topic, and I think the ability to address a number of topics in a skeptical fashion is under-rated and I think part of this is one of the problems.

Jennifer: I can see a problem with some people of both genders in skepticism trying to be more diverse.

Maria: I tell people that if you’re interested in starting a new skeptic blog then it works best to focus on something specific & find a niche.  Regardless of gender I think this is a good idea, because as the community grows you’re going to need that diversity.

Jennifer: I’ve found that on a bunch of discussions, I tend to be more of a moderator.  More women seem to be more like moderators, whereas more men seem to be a bit more moderate.  And that moderating voice is necessary even in skepticism.

Pamela: I saw some proof of this when I gave some lectures to ministers about the fact that the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years.  The talk was dealing with shredding not only the Disco Institute but also the more hardcore atheists – all of whom are men, so no women are known as “haters”.

Rebecca: The idea of skepticism as being conflict-oriented and in-your-face & the idea that it is more compassionate is part of the movement.  But as more women get into skepticism, I see more and more compassion getting out there.

Maria: I also think that in terms of appealing to women, I think it’s important to deal with the pseudosciences that focus specifically on women.  I think a lot of people don’t realize exactly how much woo is directed specifically at women, and how women are marketed to on a lot of this stuff.  I think that once you start bringing those topics into the forefront a lot of women will get people to start thinking about it.

Jennifer: It’s like how when you educate women in other countries and it starts to improve society.  I was reminded of Dr. Oz recommending the H1N1 vaccine and a reporter asked him whether or not he was vaccinating his own kids, and he said “no” because his wife is a reiki practitioner.

Q: Why do you think that there are some people who insist that “feminism is done”?

Rebecca: I’ve been asked why I call myself a feminist, because we now have the right to vote.  The fact of the matter is that feminist is still very much needed.

Carrie: There was a recent study in Minnesota released and it’s pretty bleak – the wage gap still exists, and there are a lot of women in middle management but not upper management.  We still have a long way to go.

Jennifer: I grew up in a really egalitarian family, so I was surprised to see the other day that a person came in and they’d been to a preschool graduation.  There 80% of the girls said they wanted to be a mommy, but none of the boys said they wanted to be a daddy.

Pamela: I’m a research scientist and get federal funding, and my contract says that I can’t get family leave if I become pregnant.  But a man I work with was able to work out a deal when his wife got pregnant – that’s gender bias.

Rebecca: People see we have the right to vote, and they think that it’s over.  They don’t necessarily see these other issues, such as those regarding maternity leave.

Q: Awhile ago you talked about getting young women interested in science.  Does it make a difference on whether or not science is taught by men vs. women?

Debbie: In some textbooks there are more women shown as scientists, and this can affect the success of the female students.

I tutor for the SATs, and I’ve read a lot about standardized tests and I can see how many biases creep into these exams.

Q: Can you see any way in which there is a manner to adjust for the gender bias in these exams and gradually phase it out?

Carrie:  I think one way to do it gradually is just get more women in the door writing these tests and so on.

Pamela: It takes time because the average academic department takes about 12 years to hire new faculty.  In my department it’ll take 30 years to reach gender parity.

Q: It isn’t just that there is unconscious gender bias; there is also a constant & conscious bias which occurs in many households.

Carrie: My mom was very much a tomboy and her mom tried to “make her more lady-like”, and so my parents never once told me that “girls don’t do that.”

Pamela: My father really wanted a boy, so he took me to look through telescopes, throw the ball in the backyard, and help him build the patio.  I was not a “girly girl” but I was very feminine.  I hate being the only girl in the room, but I’ve done it enough times that I can out-boy the boys.

Debbie: I have an older sister, a younger sister, and a younger brother.  I played sports and I’m damn good at it, but I also went to Catholic school for 11 years and I hate dresses.  I noticed a definite shift in gender roles as my brother was born when my parents decided to start showing them things like how to change the oil in the car whereas I & my sisters didn’t get that.  I was very aware of that and it made me angry.  I think that it goes to the assumptions that we make about how people act, and it goes to the neglect of out-group issues.

Jennifer: I grew up in a real egalitarian house, and even if I had a brother I don’t think my parents would have done anything differently.  I took apart clocks and was very sciency from the get-go.  I certainly wasn’t a tom boy.

Maria: I was sort of a girly girl, who was the baby.  The closest sibling I had was my brother, who I really looked up to.  I’m also Indian, so science & math was heavily emphasized in my house.  I was always taught that education, math, science were very important, and I was close with my brother and I tended to have a lot of male friends.

Rebecca: I was also sort of a tom boy as well.  I think the common thread is that we all somehow, in our own ways, transgressed various gender boundaries.

[many said that they weren’t even aware of these boundaries]

Rebecca: Where can we go?  How can we get more women involved?

Pamela: Role models are the most important thing.  There is a hidden study on the Internet called “Where Have All the Smart women Gone?” asking women why they chose to do what they did, and there was many that were told that they wanted to do X but were told that girls didn’t do X.  We need to show little girls that women do cool shit.

Carrie: I think we also need to speak up when we see something that could be driving women away.  Sometimes it doesn’t even occur to people that they might be alienating women.

Debbie: This is a really big set of questions?  What does parity look like?  When can we stop?  So I jotted down a couple of things… I work with college freethought, atheist, science, skeptics groups and I’m interested in figuring out some new campaigns to promote to these groups as a way of spreading skepticism on campus.  A lot of people are interested in promoting atheism, but that doesn’t equate to skepticism.  I’m looking for ideas and asking people to help me on that.  Possibly we need to be more big tent about it, because certain skeptic forums have a really negative feel which tend to turn women off.  We’re talking a lot about education, so figuring out ways to promote science better & defend science curriculum are very difficult to do now due to cuts in funding and so on.  I’m not sure if that’s something we can hope to succeed at in the short term, but we need to work at it.

Jennifer: Something we’re trying to do at WTFF and Chicago Skeptics is to try to reach out to new audiences.  There are tons of moms groups out there, and if we can provide a speaker about vaccine science & why it works that would be a good thing.  We need to give women the tools to make an informed decision and also how to deal with their friends who are telling them they’re poisoning their child.  Right now I’m at the beginning of that process, not the end.

Rebecca: As a pediatrician, are you helping to make your mothers any more skeptical or critical?

Jennifer: I have many colleagues who are very frustrated and won’t talk about it, but I try to do it as much as possible.  And I have changed many minds.  I have skeptical discussions about a lot of alternative med issues and my parents.

Rebecca: I think you’ve been doing serious skeptical activism for years without calling it that.  I think that having more women involved can open up skepticism to so many more topics, and important topics.  I think that we’ve seen a limited number of topics being addressed by the skeptical community for a long time, but slowly that’s starting to change.

Jennifer: As far as fitting into the role model thing, I met this women in my meetup who went to a therapy session where there was a lot of chiropractic and whatnot.  I didn’t know what to do, so I asked “What would Jennifer do?”

Maria: I think at the local level, I run the Atlanta skeptics.  We’re at the point now where we really want to get more involved in activism, and I think cons are a fantastic way to get out there.  I’m somewhat of a newcomer, and I’m kind of sensitive to people who are brand new to the movement and we need to be very open & welcoming and explain the language and terms.  We also need to make it real, especially in how this stuff relates to people’s everyday lives.  When you’ve got people dying of whooping cough in California, it makes me want to stab somebody in the eye.  I think if we are passionate about these things, it will rub off on other people.

Jennifer: For example, when Wakefield came to Chicago we put the word out and got all kinds of stuff together.  We attended and handed out information to people, and we also followed up.  We also got out there and talked beyond our incestuous little group.

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