Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Not just skepticism/atheism

So at the completely awesome-sounding Women in Skepticism conference (I was unable to attend, but I'll echo the call that I hope there's another one), Jen McCreight mentioned in a panel that women attendees at other conferences had taken her aside and mentioned prominent speakers who she, as a young woman, should steer clear of.

This is now being discussed all over the place. Stephanie Zvan has a couple of great posts, and I've been following the discussions at Pharyngula and Greta Christina's blog as well. It seems like many commenters, and well, they mostly seem to be men, are absolutely shocked to hear that such conversations happen. It seems to be a combination of not expecting atheist speakers to be sleazy and not understanding why women don't publicly name offenders.

While I haven't had this particular conversation (TAM this year will be my first skeptic con), I am not surprised to hear that it happens.

Because I've heard it elsewhere.

When I was looking at graduate programs*, I definitely remember female grad students getting a moment alone with me to quietly say "Hey, as a woman, you really don't want to be in Dr. XYZ's lab."

This problem is not limited to atheism/skepticism.

Now, were these unproven accusations? From my perspective, sure. I wasn't given a sworn statement on what had happened for that kind of message to get out. But I can't imagine that people would be demanding incontrovertible proof for graduates students quietly letting prospects know that "Dr. Jones is a total workhouse; prepare to be in lab every weekend" or "Dr. Smith has had problems with consistent funding" or even "Dr. Brown has a reputation for being less than honest with data collection." Maybe those things aren't true either, but it's generally unlikely that grad students would have an incentive to lie here. This kind of honest feedback is half the point of visiting campuses. And a graduate student has an incredibly hard time making any kind of complaint against their advisor. I can easily see why women would simply grit their teeth, get through the degree, and quietly warn any other women away from the lab.

So for everyone who has been astonished to find about these quiet warnings, please realize that this isn't the only context where this happens. I'd imagine that it's actually sadly common given the prevalent sexism in our society that some men with power will take advantage of their status and women without power will perceive little recourse other than this: make sure other women know to stay away from this person.

This is not a problem unique to the secular community. It's problem with sexism that the skeptic/atheist community simply isn't immune from.

But I'd love to see real solutions for this come from the secular community. Make sure to read all the links up top to see great suggestions for future cons.

*Just to be clear, no one had this conversation with me in my current program, I haven't experienced any harassment from faculty in my current program, and I haven't heard of any other woman who has. I have never needed to be the instigator of this conversation.

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