Feminist hypersensitivity or masculine obtuseness?

The latest furious argument going on in the atheist community is over this panel at an American Atheists meeting in Huntsville, Alabama. The subject was what atheist groups can do to attract more women, which is a good and important question. Kudos for asking it.

Here, go watch the video before you read further. Try to see the problem that got some people rather irate.

Done? OK. Now go read what Sharon Moss and Lyz Liddell had to say about it, their subsequent clarification, and Ophelia Benson's comments.

Listen. To. The. Women.

I've got a simple suggestion for my fellow men. Learn to shut up and listen. Seriously. You want women to find your organization pleasant and interesting and worth contributing to? Then don't form panels full of men trying to figure out what women want, talking over women who try to get a word in edgewise, belittling women's suggestions with jokes, and trying to determine how We Well-Meaning Men can give Those Women what we think they want. You are assuming an authority and presuming that it is in your power to give it to the minority, when what you should be doing is deferring to that minority and giving them your attention, letting them speak and shape your organization.

We men have the benefit of a culture that has put us in a position of default social dominance, whether we deserve it or not. There is this bias that colors our interactions with women (and vice versa), and we are perpetuating it when we patronizingly try to explain to the ladies that we want to be more attentive to their needs.

You have to surrender your attitudes. You have to SHUT UP AND LISTEN. You have to be willing to listen to a woman disagreeing with you, without dismissing her complaints as unimportant.

I don't know why that's so hard to get across to people. But fellows, just imagine this: a community meeting in your town is held in which a group of liberal, well-intentioned people are trying to figure out how to deal with the burgeoning population of godless folk. They have a meeting: on the panel in the front of the room is one quiet atheist and five Christians of various denominations. And then the Christians proceed to preach about the fraternity of Christ and loving their neighbor and how important it is to find these lost souls a welcoming place in the community, and they get positive affirmations from all the religious attendees, while the atheists sit, surrounded by the condescending godly.

How would you feel? Would you have any confidence at all that this group was even interested in making you a full and equal social partner?

I know what comes next. You'll say the atheists in that group need to be assertive and aggressive and take some authority, and that women need to do that too, so it's not your fault. And it's true that women could assert themselves more, except look what happens when they do: they're too sensitive, their concerns are trivialized, they are made light of, they are mocked, in the worst cases they are called "bitches" and "man-haters"…and it quickly becomes obvious that the men in this group don't really want women to have any authority at all, and the women quickly realize that they don't want to be part of this community.

So we'll convene another panel in which a bunch of men will wonder what they can do to encourage women to participate more. Round and round it goes.


So let's get specific. You're organizing an atheist meeting. You want more minority participation. Don't decide that after you've recruited the top ten white atheist males you wanted for your roster of speakers: do it first, make a commitment to bring in women and people of color.

You've got Richard Dawkins signed up? Great, he's a fantastic speaker, he'll bring in a lot of attention. Now go after a woman of equal assertiveness, and don't give her second billing (if you try to say that there are no women that potent, I'm going to have to slap you hard, and tell you you have no business organizing this conference, then. And then I'll give you a list.) Design your ads to give equal or greater attention to her, and send the message that this is important.

Do you want to consciously discuss the matter of minority participation? Whatever you do, don't put it in the hands of a speaker or panel dominated by the majority, do not give the people who already have amplified voices a megaphone and tell them to pontificate. Tell them to shut up. That panel in Huntsville should have been all women. If the subject of women was only part of the range of topics under discussion then when it came to that question, the men should have a) shut up and let the woman speak, or better yet, b) left their chairs and invited women from the audience to sit up front for a while.

This really isn't hard. Unless you're incapable of shutting up.

Now I predict that the comments here will fill up with people explaining that there really wasn't a problem at that panel, there was no raging sexism on display, etc., etc., etc., all demonstrating that it really is hard for some guys to shut up and swallow it.

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