A few years back, there was a topic of discussion in “skeptical circles” (meaning some blogs and forums that featured critical thinking discussions fairly frequently) regarding the lack of female attendees at various skeptical conventions and meetups – most especially, the lack of female speakers. Actually, such discussions may be still be taking place, but I’m moving in different circles now, and it’s partially because of the ill-informed arguments over this topic.
Here’s what happens, and this is pretty typical in many different areas. People notice that the speakers at most conventions are predominantly male, and don’t know of an apparent reason for why this should be. A certain (far too high) percentage of them, believing that the numbers should be perfectly split between genders, start to wonder what is happening that is excluding women, up to and including the prejudice of the male organizers. Another percentage wonders in what way women are being made to feel unwelcome, perhaps subtly. People start trying to figure out how to make these events more female-friendly, changing the topics to attract women, pressuring the organizers to feature more women as speakers, and so on. The reactions range from curiosity over what’s happening to direct accusations of sexism and misogyny. For a while, there was a push to promote a new self-applied label, Atheism+, for those who were both atheist and feminist – apparently a new dividing line is supposed to help promote acceptance.
What was rarely asked, or even considered, was whether this was a perfectly normal state of affairs. There’s a folk belief that men and women are no different in mental makeup, and without ingrained cultural biases, there will be equal representation between the genders in all pursuits – the only reason there isn’t is because society is dictating the rules of behavior. This is a very widespread concept anymore, and efforts to try and avoid establishing gender roles are spreading. But it’s horseshit – men and women do have different thought processes and approaches, and this has been established for a very long time now. Nor is there reason to believe this is caused solely by culture. We would be a rare species among all of those on the planet if we didn’t have any differences, in fact.
The first thing I have to throw out (because objectivity and reading the actual lines, rather than between them, is far too rare when it comes to such topics) is that this does not make either gender better, worse, flawed, superior, or whatever. Different just means different – no value judgments belong. The second thing that I have to point out is that it would be a truly unique situation if an uneven representation of gender, in any milieu, was due entirely to one influence – there can indeed be prejudice, social roles, and outright sexism within any situation even while the major influence in numbers is due to inherent preferences. But assuming that there is blatant sexism at work is just as wrong as assuming that there is none; the objective approach is to determine exactly what is at work before proceeding with ways to change it (I purposefully did not say “correct it” here – this implies that there’s something wrong in the first place.)
There are pursuits that are dominated by women, among them apparel and crafts, cooking, dancing, romance novels, and so on, just as there are pursuits that are dominated by men, among them sports and racing, action movies, fishing, et cetera. A lot of people would insist that these are gender roles dictated by society, that will change with the right attitudes, but this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There is nothing stopping women from forming motorcycle clubs, and a lot of men would be delighted if the women they knew shared their enthusiasm for sporting events. It also must be noted that if someone feels uncomfortable with any pursuit, it doesn’t really matter if it comes from within or if it’s been “dictated” by society – uncomfortable is uncomfortable. The only thing that really should be considered, and carefully at that, are the situations where someone wants to engage in a pursuit but feels uncomfortable when they cannot.
Now, let’s step back a bit to see things from another perspective. Sexual reproduction is a curious thing in the animal kingdom, because it creates certain situations in almost all species. Both genders are inclined to promote their own genes, since the desire to do so is what made it through natural selection – those that want to reproduce are just a bit more likely to reproduce than those who lack such a drive, and so the next generations are dominated by the same desires passed on by the parents. But because females are committed by the time and demands of pregnancy, they fare better by being selective over who they choose to mate with; the investment is significant, so it’s in their best interest to ensure that the genes they accept from a male will help that investment. In most species, this means selecting a mate that appears healthy, active, and able to help provide for or protect the offspring. Thus, females select. The male investment is significantly less, but varies depending on the species; some require a mated pair to provide adequate resources to successfully raise young, some exist in colonies of shared responsibilities, some are entirely independent from birth. But in nearly all cases, the males compete to be selected by the females – sometimes this is passive, with displays of physical fitness or health, and sometimes it is aggressive, chasing off other males. Often it is both, and for the vast majority of human history, back through several earlier species, this was almost certainly the case.
What this means is, underlying much of human male behavior sits the drive to compete for favor, appearing to be a better choice than anyone else. This manifests in countless ways, from sports to payscale, clothes sense to academic achievement – it’s the way our species thrives. To be sure, females compete as well, but far less aggressively, and in fact, the one-male/multiple-females dynamic exists in numerous species… including, in several cultures, our own. There is far more evidence that the single-spouse concept is culturally influenced than the multiple-wife concept is – the latter makes perfect sense from a biological standpoint when you compare the relative contributions of sperm to child-bearing. A superior male spouse choice, shared among multiple females, optimizes the genetic legacy for all involved – provided the supporting resources of food and protection can be maintained as well.
What does all this have to do with skepticism? I apologize for being tedious, but without all the details, it won’t seem clear. Skepticism, and indeed any form of debate, is to a large extent competitive – demonstrating how much more wise the individual is over another. It is also a factor of building a strong ‘tribe,’ ensuring that the collective actions and goals of the group are most effective. It does make this blog seem a lot like strutting around a bar with an open shirt, which is why it is offset by the strictly non-competitive pursuit of nature photography. Yes, that was tongue-in-cheek as well – most of what we do is competitive in one form or another, and the only time to be embarrassed by it is when it fails to produce (or actively works against) some real benefit.
But there lies the key factor. It’s the males that stake territory, that build or maintain a spousal habitat, that devote a lot of energy into competition, while the females devote a lot of energy into bearing the young. This does not imply in any way what is meant to be or what someone must do, it just means this is the system that works for so many different species – the necessities of surviving and raising young are split among the two genders, and so there is different behavior for each. This makes it likely (though far from proven) that males are much more interested, more motivated, to pursue active skepticism than females – just as this gender bias is visible in all debates, politics, sports, and most other forms of status competition.
By all means, however, if a female wants to pursue skepticism, or football, or the CEO position – if a male wants to sew, or dance, or make jewelry – then they should be free to do so, without feeling in any way uncomfortable about it, even if they interpret the ideas expressed above as meaning that something isn’t right. Such behavioral influences come from a time when they were far more important than they are now – our culture has changed much faster than evolution can keep up. But overall, just because we do not see an immediate reason for a difference in behavior or desire doesn’t mean it can’t exist, or that there is something wrong.
There’s a more subtle factor that may be at work, too. As a species we tend to be more captivated by male voices, especially rich, deep ones – I am obligated to use the word “timbre” here. Morgan Freeman could convince most of us to do just about anything. Such a thing doesn’t make someone a better speaker, considered in regards to content, presentation, dynamism, or anything else, but it can make someone more favored when speaking, which does influence how much approval they gain. Thus, it remains possible that male speakers simply elicit a greater audience than female speakers overall. This certainly seems unfair and smacks of sexism, but it’s a subconscious reaction to tone more than a prejudice over the value of someone’s gender; these are not interchangeable, and mistaking one for the other is not going to be productive in any way.
Again, this doesn’t mean that there is no bigotry present in such situations, either – there are plenty of examples of sexism and misogyny to be seen. But there are also plenty of examples of those labels being applied where they weren’t even remotely supportable – from what I’ve seen personally, the latter is far more often the case. Before any conclusion is made, especially before any accusation is leveled, the objective thing to do is to gather the information first.
It also helps to realize that culture is far more an expression of desire than a method of suppression. Just taking clothes as an example, even as ‘conformity’ dictates what current fashion might be, a lot of things simply never catch on, or die out quickly, because they just weren’t acceptable. Even neckties are disappearing, thank dog (stupidest damn idea for men’s fashion ever, partially because they’ve remained for so long.) And while men often feel obligated to be good at building furniture or repairing cars, the number who actually possess these skills is shrinking rapidly – culture might make us feel uncomfortable, but it can rarely force a behavior.
Later on, there might be a speculative post about some of the ramifications of this, extensions of the ideas. For now, I only want to point out that if women or men are underrepresented in some field, this may only be an indication that we have the wrong impression of what is ‘representative’ in the first place. We have reasons to be different, and we tend to follow what makes us most pleased. Being influenced by evolved survival traits from long ago isn’t bad, or “the way things are meant to be,” or anything else – it just is. We may still want to change something, recognizing that our culture now is not what natural selection faced over our long history as a species, and it’s likely we can find a more beneficial approach than ‘instinct.’ But conscious will does not easily dismiss subconscious imperative, especially when few realize it even exists; most certainly, any approach to effect such changes needs to take any subconscious biological influences, should they exist, into account.
Even more importantly, it must be asked if it matters at all. If women really are underrepresented in skeptical pursuits because they aren’t as motivated by them, changing every speaker in every venue to female would likely have only fractional effect – few women find only female speakers to be compelling, and it’s actually rather insulting to think that females are more likely to pay attention only to other women. If the goal is full gender equality, wouldn’t the ability to ignore the gender of the speaker be more important than perpetuating some idea of a dividing line in the first place?
It’s a tricky topic, and I’m not trying to promote any particular attitude, just the ability to consider other perspectives. Armchair psychology plays far too much of a role in discussions of this nature – humans are a complicated species, and simple assumptions about us stand a good chance of being utterly wrong. Not to mention, when present in regards to skeptical pursuits, it becomes rather hypocritical.