Today's Talk

Let's not have another conversation about all "that", but this may interest commenters on my "Feminism and Atheism" post.

Today I gave a talk at the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, which meets one Sunday morning every month in a church-like manner, complete with potlock lunch, activities for kids, social justice initiatives, activism, and music.  This month's meeting theme was the now famous elevator-gate brouhaha.  My SMU philosophy department colleague Justin Fisher gave an opening presentation that included a clip from Rebecca Watson's YouTube video about elevator guy, and Richard Dawkins' notorious reaction at Pharyngula.  His take on it: privilege can blind men to the experiences of women, whites to the experiences of blacks, and so on.  A heavily white, male community needs to be as sensitive as possible to these issues, if it wants to become more diverse.  Two other speakers gave presentations designed to increase sensitivity.  A band called The Faithless Companions provided the perfect musical interludes, including a very funny song called 'Taylor, Latte Boy."  Next up, on screen,  this hilarious rebuttal song and "Hot Girl in the Comic Shop"--with a lot of relevance to the issues at hand. So--lots of good humor.

My talk was intended to get away from DawkinsandWatsonology and explore the question why there's a gender imbalance at atheist meetings--since that debate, starting at the Global Atheist Convention in Dublin, was the backdrop for the whole kerfuffle.  But what with a verdict about Dawkins being presupposed--privilege blinded him--I kind of had to say a little about that.  Who would want to disagree with the general point that people ought to be more aware of privilege and unprivilege, and how these things color our perceptions?  Not me.  But I'm not entirely happy with dismissing Dawkins as just blinded, rather than trying to understand what led up to his assessment of Watson.  I think the gender debate that started in Dublin was probably relevant.

Anyhow ... the main goal of my presentation was to talk about the gender imbalance question.  The powerpoint I used is below, and I think from the slides you can get a reasonably good idea what I said. You'll want to pause the slides now and again, because they move pretty fast. I tried adding narration, but it sounded so terrible I had to abandon ship. Instead:  a little strumming from John Fahey. Certain readers of this blog will see that I found their input and links they provided very useful. Thank you!

There's a survey at the end of the presentation, and here are the results:

All (45)--15 say zero bad, 27 say slightly bad, 3 say more than slightly bad
Women only (19)--4 say zero bad, 12 say slightly bad, 3 say more than slightly bad
Men only (26)--11 say zero bad, 15 say slightly bad, 0 say more than slightly bad

As I said at the start--the idea isn't to start another big elevator-gate conversation, but just wrap up.  Comments are open, but please bear that in mind!


ianbargain said...

how come you didn't use one of the moon pictures as background or opening slide. I'm doing it in my next talk. Whatever be the context.

Jean Kazez said...

The aesthetic of the slide show started out being based on the idea that the whole elevator thing is sort of tabloid-comicbook-ish, so--garish yellow, loud arial black font, fat black borders, etc. But by the end I started getting into stream metaphors, ducks,and blurred picture borders. It could have been a children's easter story. So--no real aesthetic unity. I could have used the moons, you're quite right. Darn, why didn't I think of that? Next time I give a talk...yes, one of the moons, whatever it's about.

Faust said...

I wonder if there is any copyright on the moons?

The superhero pick made me lol.

Hey 42% women at this meeting! Good for you guys, bucking the trend!

Jean Kazez said...

Must be a copyright--wish I could credit the photographer. There are even more hits today than yesterday!

Yeah--the superhero mayhem seemed about right. 42% women, including someone who say "zero bad." But more men do. Is it fair to attribute that to "privilege"? Hmm....

Wayne said...

First... Hot Girl in a Comic Shop was hilarious!

I avoided all of the talk about this topic the first time around, mostly because I was afraid I might have a bias cloud around my head for being 1. male 2. not a big fan of Rebecca Watson (the bias would solely be in my head, since I know most of you don't know that I'm not a big fan of Rebecca Watson. I don't know what it is... I remember when I started reading skepchick early in its formation, I was intrigued, then a little bored by it, then a little turned off by it. Its like the feminist version of PETA except not so extreme. I can't explain it).

But anyways, what piqued my interest here was that if women speakers were at events, more women came. Why? If the topic is atheism, then atheistic women should come out of the woodwork and listen to the talk, regardless of gender of the speaker right? But that doesn't happen.

So either women like what women have to say on the subject, or they are don't like hearing what men have to say on the subject, or both. Of course it could be the misogyny that is occurring at the conferences as well... but if more women showed up to these conferences, I'd expect fewer of these elevator instances happening. Just like if more women went to comic book stores, there would be fewer men who would suddenly lose time.

So it strikes me as a self-reinforcing dilemma here. The more women who refrain from going to events, the less integrated they become in the discussion, in academia, etc. and the more likely they become objectified (just like any other minority group). But nobody (except maybe Rebecca Watson) wants to be the one to stick their heads out to blaze the trail.

Jean Kazez said...

Long before I heard about this controversy, I tried to warm up to Skepchick, but no such luck. I prefer atheist blogs with more intellectual "bite".

I don't think it's strange at all that women will attend more if there are more female speakers. This is probably true wrt age, too. If you're 30 and go to a meeting where all the speakers are over 60, you're going to think "I just don't belong." It's an obstacle, even if not completely insuperable, for all people. Putting more young speakers on the program would attract a younger audience. Same for adding female speakers being a way to attract a bigger female audience. No?

Russell Blackford said...

Jean, do you know how people in the three categories interpreted the coffee invitation, or whether the women and men interpreted it in the same way?

I would have said "slightly bad", based on my interpretation that it was a rather intrusive request by Elevator Guy to monopolise Watson's time very late at night, and, in effect, bore her with his response to her talk.

But even if I thought it was an outright request for sex I'd probably say only "slightly bad", since it was evidently done in a polite, considerate, and I'd argue non-objectifying, way.

I actually think the "outright request for sex" interpretation is pretty much the least likely, since he seems to have gone out of his way to disclaim it. There are possibilities in between, of course. Maybe he hoped he'd charm her with his brilliant insights in response to her talk and she'd respond by offering him sex ... or merely by becoming friends with him (which might lead to offer of sex from her down the track, though?) ... or ... Who knows? There are many possibilities, and he may have been a bit vague about his own motivation, as we all are much of the time.

So, there are many possible interpretations of what Elevator Guy was thinking. I wonder whether the men and women in your sample interpreted it in different ways, and whether the people who said "zero bad", "slightly bad", and "more than slightly bad" interpreted it in different ways.

Jean Kazez said...

It so happens that at the potluck afterward the people around me were "zero-badders" so I got to hear a fair amount about that position. I think they thought this was some sort of pick up attempt (yes, there are shades of gray where picking up is concerned...or at least that's what I recall from a previous life), but they thought it was still zero bad. They just thought it's fine to be straightforward about these things. Gay men seemed to particularly see it that way. An Israeli woman thought this was seriously just a big fuss about nothing.

But someone else made the point that the guy must have heard her express a preference earlier not to be hit on at meetings, either in the bar or at her talk earlier that day. It was insensitive of him to ignore that. I think that's actually the best case for "slightly bad."

Russell Blackford said...

Well, re the Israeli woman, it was a fuss about almost nothing IMO. But not about absolutely nothing at all. EG's behaviour still strikes me as intrusive and faux-entitled, which is why I've always said that Watson had a point in her initial video.

But did she really say on the "Communicating Atheism" panel that she has a personal preference that no one at all ever try to "hit on" her/chat her up at all, even politely? That would have been way off topic. Having watched it on video some time back, I thought her point wasn't about her own personal preference not to be chatted up, but a call for atheists to avoid vulgar, arguably misogynist, behaviour at conventions. Whatever EG was thinking, he would surely not have thought he was acting like that - and with good reason. What she says he said was not vulgar or misogynist at all ... and nor was it intimidating, hostile, humiliating, insistent, objectifying, or anything else of the kind. Even if it was an attempt to chat her up, which I actually doubt, it was apparently done in a polite way that showed him treating her not only as an object of sexual desire but also as someone with feelings and interests of her own that were to be respected.

Nor, if it comes to that, was there was there anything like "misogynist thought" in Stef McGraw's blog post. McGraw shouldn't have called Watson a hypocrite, but that is a purely private matter that could have been dealt with by having a quiet word over coffee or whatever.

That aside, McGraw made some philosophically solid points.

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, Don't you think it's kind of implausible that at 4 in the morning, after all those hours of talking in the bar, someone would really want to go to their room, brew some coffee, and do more talking?

As to what preferences she had expressed--maybe you're right about the panel. Not sure about the conversation in the bar, though.

Russell Blackford said...

Not that implausible, Jean. In my (alas long, by now) experience, international conventions with similar demographics are often full of people who want to stay up all night and are quite prepared to bore you at length with their personal theories. I've also kicked this around with one or two other people with similar experience to mine. I can easily imagine Elevator Guy, from the original description, as someone who was not really interested in sex.

Of course, I'm not ruling it out. As above, there are lots of possible interpretations involving various shades of chat-uppish thoughts (with some falling well short of him intending to ask for sex outright).

I don't know what was said in the bar, of course. Perhaps Watson is right about that, but it just seems odd. If he clearly heard her say (in what may well have been a confusing environment if you think of group conversations in bars ... and again I have almost too much experience of them) that she has a personal preference not to be chatted up by men at all, that just makes it seem more plausible that his "Don't take this the wrong way, but..." actually did mean "I'm not intending to chat you up, but..."

But we really don't know and I don't see how anyone involved can be confident even about all their own motives in the situation, let alone about someone else's. It all just seems very murky. It's hardly a clear-cut example of anything at all.

Justin said...

Thanks Jean for giving the talk at FoF!

I was intrigued by Wayne's question about why having more women speakers would inspire more women to come to conferences. Jean seemed to think it went without saying that attendees would tend to match the demographics of speakers. I don't think this can be true for all demographic categories: take, for example, brown-eyed, high blood pressured, or single-parent. So that raises the question why some demographic categories are self-attracting in this way.

One hypothesis is that women have a default expectation that atheist conferences will not be very fun (a bunch of guys aggressively talking, a lot of unwanted sexual attention, etc...), but seeing women on the program challenges this default expectation, and makes them think that it will be more balanced and more fun.

I wonder, though, how much of this is just correlation without causation. Do we have good data that this is causal? E.g., has some recurring convention decreased its number of women on the program and received a corresponding decrease in female attendance? Or are there just two trend-lines curving up at about the same time?

Jean Kazez said...

Justin, I wouldn't be surprised if much of this is correlation--various forces are making women attend these meetings more, and other forces are putting more women on programs. However, I also wouldn't surprised if there's at least *some* causal connection. Meeting attendees don't care if speakers look like them in all respects--hair color, eye color, etc. But same gender has some significance, I would think, because many people care about whether they're activities and attitudes are gender-appropriate.

Example--say my son decides to join yearbook club in high school, and at the first meeting, finds out all other members are female. This will make him wonder if the activity is gender-appropriate. It's too bad people have this concept, but they do.

When I was in highschool, I joined the chess club, even though all other members were male. I think I dropped out sooner than I might have (despite winning my games) because it felt like a boy's club.

People don't worry about doing things that are brown-hair-appropriate or blue-eyes-appropriate, but gender appropriateness matters to many. Likewise they care about being age-appropriate (that's why I focused on age in my previous comment). If I go to the Audubon society meeting and discover all other bird watchers are over 60, and I'm in my 20s, I might very well not come back. I might think--whoops, I'm not acting my age. On the other hand, I find that when I go to concerts these days (e.g. Arcade Fire recently) the average age is despicably low. So I feel out of place, and that reduces my chance of going again (sadly enough).

I'm rambling here...Basic point is, there are some demographic characteristics that most people see as "normative". They want to act appropriately for their gender and for their age (etc), and that's one reason why the number of female speakers at an atheist meeting may affect how many women attend.

Tony Ryan said...

http://youtu.be/EyMTI7MoWck Some of your talk - it was really interesting.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, I'd feel out of place at my wife's yoga class which is 100 per cent women even though, as I understand it, men are permitted to attend. But I don't think I'd feel out of place if even a small number of blokes attended (making up, say, 20 per cent of the class). I think the feeling out-of-place reasoning only applies if the skewed sex ratio is overwhelming.

The nastiness on the internet may well be a factor, but that's more to do with the internet than with atheism. If you actually attended an atheist conference, Jean, you'd see that the internet flame wars give a distorted impression. That may still be a reason to tone them down, of course, and I'm taking that to heart.