Where the Girls Aren’t

October 1999
by Sheila Gibson

Next time you attend a skeptics’ meeting, look around. What you don’t see will be as obvious as what you do see—a white, older, largely professional group, with few to no women. Sadly, this pattern repeats across the country. This skeptical chick has gone to conferences in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Fort Lauderdale and stuff near home in New England. Women were always a minority. The skeptical gender gap became brutally clear whenever I visited a ladies’ room. I knew things were horrendously lopsided when I noticed the absence of a social phenomenon that even now, as you read this, tortures innocent women everywhere.

No matter where a conference was sited, what time of day it was, or which bathroom I chose, there was never a line for the ladies’ room. Every well-attended event generates a line outside the ladies’ room, usually right at the most critical moments. It’s the misogynistic legacy of male builders who blithely installed equal numbers of stalls in both restroom facilities. Some have risked arrest to commandeer a men’s room. There were so few women attendees at the skepticons that there wasn’t the faintest chance of a run on the ladies’. That is how few active women there are in skepticism. That’s scary.

Things have to change. What better way to find out why there aren’t more female skeptics than asking female skeptics themselves? I shared my smartass opinions with a dozen female skeptics. Their answers were remarkable, and I dreaded having to squish them into 1500 words. So I have used some sweeping generalizations, but hey, this ain’t a journal paper. Any resemblance to science, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Easy stuff first: skeptical groups haven’t had much luck promoting their very existence, never mind targeting women. Only now are group leaders starting to create good promotional strategies. As skepticism starts to appear on the cultural radar, so too will female members.

Don’t buy that “women don’t like math and science” excuse, as I did. New Jerseyite Jennifer Kramer, film scholar, skeptical maverick, and driving force of the Picture Palace (www.picpal.com) popped that bubble of bunk. “Marketers and advertisers know the wife and mother controls the money in a
household. That’s math, pure and simple.” Not convinced? Ask the next woman you take to lunch how many calories are in her entrée.

Now, the messy stuff. Fetid, sprawling, hard-to-quantify factors are getting in the way of our noble goal. I’ve lumped them under three headings. Social Conditioning. If we’re in a post-feminist grrrl power age, then why isn’t Marilyn Vos Savant as popular as Pamela Anderson Lee? Why is there no Modern Groom magazine among the superglossy bridal magazines? Little girls learn early that the prettiest women, not the smartest women, get their pick of society’s goodies.
“Old attitudes die hard,” said Donna Halpern, journalism instructor at Emerson and NESS member. “Girls still get the message that their value is in having a great figure rather than being a great scientist.”

If anything, skepticism is a handicap. Women still get tagged as the cooperative gender, the fonts of unconditional love. Skeptics, however, ask tough questions about controversial subjects and demand proof. Then we criticize the proof. We say no. We offend. We reject. We are not fonts of unconditional love.
This does not make for lovely garden party conversation.

“Many women tend to avoid disagreements because the attack feels personal even when it isn’t,” said NESS member Lydia Rice.

“Most women have a drive to connect with others. This desire to connect downplays interest in thinking about anything “taboo,” because that causes conflict rather than connection,” she said.

Even worse, skeptical traits are considered “male,” sometimes “anti-female”—yet everyone needs to master both “male” and “female” traits to survive and succeed.

“Even in the world of nonsense, there are gender differences,” Halpern observed. “Men hold the religious looney-tune position, and women hold the pseudo-science end of things.”

Rank Sexism. And I do mean rank.

“Several women attendees noticed that married and single women were treated totally differently,” said Linda Rosa, cofounder of Colorado’s Front Range Skeptics and mother of 12-year-old Emily, whose therapeutic touch-debunking experiment was published in JAMA last year. “I, myself, noticed that I somehow became a mindless volunteer in need of male direction after I married. It wasn’t subtle, either,” she said.

“If skeptics talked more about math and science and less about what they condemn as “typical of women” or “feminine,” they’d get a better response,” said Kramer.

Gross lack of social skills. And I do mean gross.

“What woman hasn’t been cornered by a single-minded, motor-mouthed, Kennedy assassination conspiracist who monopolizes her whole evening?” Rosa asks. “Being bred to be polite, women don’t extract ourselves from such situations easily,” she said.

“I suspect a lot of skeptics’ groups are not family-friendly,” she said, speaking of one group that didn’t allow children at meetings. She suggested we could pick up a few tricks from an unusual source—religions. “Religions make time for socializing, not just Bible talk. Skeptics could have field trips together. Meeting at members’ homes might deepen relationships,” she said.

So, how should we attack the problem? Here are some ideas from the skeptical women:

Reach out. Asking members to bring a novice friend to meetings worked, said Rosa. “It’s less daunting if you have someone to guide you, especially if you’re a woman,” she said. Rosa recommended designating a “Group Greeter” to attend to new people and make them comfortable, and also a social director to plan field trips, movie outings, and other fun things.

Halpern advised skeptics to go where the women are and speak in college classes and on university panels outside the familiar techno realm—psychology, social science, journalism.

Helen Hester-Ossa, newsletter editor for the Washington, D.C. National Capitol Area Skeptics, suggested making women’s concerns a priority when choosing topics. There’s plenty of material already: the Dow Chemical breast implants case, the satanic ritual abuse day care scare, and improving science education for girls, for instance.

Mind your manners. Call your mom for help if you’re lost on this. There’s no lack of great recent books on etiquette if you need a refresher. Sell the benefits better. While there are few women in skepticism, many of them are leaders: Linda Rosa and Emily Rosa, Kim Ziel Shermer and Pat Linse of Skeptic, Susan Blackmore, and Carol Tavris. New recruits are blossoming. Kari Coleman learned about skepticism through her relationship with Penn Jillette. Now she’s making her own mark. Coleman was extensively quoted in a recent People magazine cover story about psychic powers, and spoke at an October NCAS seminar. (Of course, I am too modest to trumpet my own achievements.)

Skeptic groups tend to overlook their built-in assets, like leadership opportunities. Local members are a stunning collection of exceptionally bright people from the tech fields and beyond. Networking opportunities, anyone?

A dollop of ingenuity turns drawbacks into gold. Rather than fretting about the lack of women, local groups could present themselves as safe places for them to sharpen their debating skills and learn to navigate a heavily male environment without putting their jobs or careers at risk. Professional women would pounce on these resume boosters—if they knew about them. Then again, maybe skeptical women are just different. Skepchicks ’99 Calendar participant Paula Sullenger observed ,“Women who participate don’t necessarily have a science background and they don’t fit female stereotypes. They seem to be comfortable in groups of men. Being the only woman doesn’t bother them.”

“If skeptics could somehow target this type of female, that would probably get more results than just trying to draw women,” she said. The bottom line? Skepticism needs women, and women need skepticism. No one brought the point home like NESS member Lydia Rice. She wrote a moving three-page letter about growing up in an authoritarian Conservative Baptist household and enduring a long, harsh path of confusion and frustration that led to the skepticism and freethought beliefs she now embraces.

“My journey has included difficult internal battles, painful struggles with family and friends, and feeling at odds with the rest of society. I felt completely alone. I made this journey without knowing about the skeptical community or knowing that others had also taken the same steps. When I realized how many wonderful people there were in this group, I was delighted!” she said.

“We skeptics need to make ourselves more visible in our communities and support those who question unsupported beliefs,” Lydia concluded. Let’s go out there and find our skeptical sisters. Let’s bring the female ranks up to the 50 percent mark and past. I’d love to look out on a conference hall and see just as many women as men. For the first time in my life, maybe I’d encounter a line, an honest-to-Einstein line outside the restroom, and the sight would, for once… make me smile.

Alright, yeah, I’m skeptical of that.