Why Are There So Few Women Skeptics?

-- by Professor DeeAnne Wymer

As noted in a previous issue of Phactum, I became interested in the topic of the gender skew towards a preponderance of males in the skeptic community after a series of debates emerged on the Internet about the "women's movement" and other such topics. A quick perusal of publications, such as the Skeptical Inquirer and the Skeptic, as well as the number of males and females attending conferences or lectures illustrates the dominance of largely older white males in these forums (I am currently tabulating statistics on the number of male and female authors in the leading skeptical journals, for example). In Part I of this article I would like to explore the common conceptions --- or misconceptions --- held by many individuals about the discrepancy between the number of males and females in the skeptics movement. Part II will delve into selected areas in more detail, including interviews with female skeptics (and non-skeptics), as well as my own insights into the matter.

The following information is largely based upon comments compiled from Internet sources, along with my impressions gleaned from face-to-face discussion with both males and females about the issue. I sent a query about the subject to Barry Karr of CSICOP which he "forwarded" to members of his e-mail notification group (typically composed of Skeptical Inquirer authors, members of various other local skeptic groups, and other interested professionals). In addition, I also sent a similar notice to several newsgroups on the Internet (sci.skeptic being one of the major ones for this field). Newsgroups are threads of conversation, an electronic discourse, where a number of individuals (typically several hundred if not more) send responses on selected topics that can be reviewed and commented upon by any individual with access to the Internet. I must thus admit that the comments on the topic of female skeptics, based so heavily on Internet and e-mail responses, undoubtedly reflect the highly selected nature of the Internet population (largely educated, male, and often from academic or professional backgrounds). However, I believe that the following summary is fairly indicative of the general consensus among the larger interested population on the topic of gender bias in the skeptic movement. The comments fall into four basic groups, focusing on either the differences between men and women overall (e.g., in how we view confrontation) or in the societal roles expected of women and men. The following quotes are actual comments from a number of individuals about the topic (I have kept the the authors' identities confidential). 1. Skeptics are largely drawn from the "hard sciences" or philosophical areas which are dominated by men. This was the most frequently cited reason for the apparent lack of female skeptics. Many individuals noted that fewer women than men are traditionally drawn into the various science fields and, hence, there will automatically be fewer female skeptics. One person noted, for example: 'Well, historically the Skeptics movement has drawn heavily from people with formal education in the hard sciences . . . these groups have typically attracted men more than women." However, during a discussion of this topic on sci.skeptic where I noted the possible role of societal expectations of girls and boys going into what was considered gender-appropriate jobs ("girls just can't handle math well") a self-proclaimed "successful" psychic haunting the sci.skeptic newsgroup chastised me with: "I cannot believe your comments, especially 'lack of science training". Where on earth have you gotten your research. Many of the actual scientific experiments today are conducted by women behind the scenes and the male professor or scientist is the one who gets the credit." (I should note that I did "hide" my gender during this discussion; only referring to myself as 'Dr. Wymer" --- I wonder if this influenced some of the comments?). 2. The structure of skeptics' organizations, how the local 'affiliates' and CSICOP, are created and organized, affects the gender make-up of the groups.

A few individuals pointed out that the very nature of CSICOP and its uneasy alliance with local skeptic organizations may have inadvertantly affected the gender structure of the groups. For example, "I think it is haphazard who (for both men and women) hears about skeptic groups, although CSICOP is gaining prominence. I'm not sure why I was on CSICOP's list for a complimentary copy, but I have suspected it was because of other magazines I take. They include Science, Scientific American, and Science News. I would suspect CSICOP's ads are primarily reaching men." This comment was from a woman who belongs to another local group and she noted the target audience selected by CSICOP may skew heavily towards males. Other individuals strongly suggested that CSICOP's lack of active engagement in helping to establish local skeptics' groups created an organizational vacuum so that it took a long time of intense and tedious discussions/debates to get local groups up and running and that ". . . women have better things to do with their time.'

3. The ever increasing demands placed upon women in the workplace and at home preclude excessive amounts of free time that can be devoted to outside organizations and interests. A common theme, especially from female professionals, is that the lack of female skeptics merely mirrors the difficulty nationwide that organizations, especially groups dependent upon volunteers, have had in maintaining their memberships. One insightful comment noted that: 'Females still carry more of the "after work" load and there's not much time for outside activities! . . . I am a member of an active chapter of Association of Women in Science. We have seen our membership wane over the last few years, despite a growing number of professional women in science. Discussing this at our last meeting, someone suggested it is because women now meet other women in the workplace more frequently. Others suggested it is because membership in outside organizations, in general, is declining. Both of these may be true and they may also be why few women are participating in skeptics organizations; just as women are beginning to get out into the world, our time for outside activities is declining." One of my favorite responses, however, suggested that women have better things to do with their free time than to ". . . [hang out with] intellectually-oriented groups whose participants are generally hi-IQ analogs of beer-guzzling, belly-belching rednecks spoiling for a fight . . . how many women hang out at violent redneck or biker bars?" (this was from a rather ascerbic male character that "hangs out" on sci.skeptic). 4. Women think differently than men do. The last section was the most difficult to condense and summarize since it includes a large number of diverse, typically highly ambivalent often contradictory, views. Essentially the topic boils down to that women do not participate in the skeptic movement because they are 'above all that' or, conversely, that they are inherently illogical creatures that can not handle such debates (the "illogical woman:feminists: neopagan-hippies:dimwits" syndrome, as someone put it). Comments that fit into this fourth category actually constituted the majority of responses (sometimes quite heated) to this topic. I believe that they can be further subdivided into additional areas: a) Women are smarter than men. One woman suggested that "Debunkers want to divide the world into two camps; 1) the gullible and 2) themselves and their poker buddies. . . . Men have been calling whatever philosophy they don't agree with 'religion' and blaming it on 'silly women' going back to the earliest of all recorded arguments. . . . Yet at the same time they deny that their real agenda is to hound people on the basis of their belief systems. Can I trust people who engage in that kind of cognitive dissonance? And if I don't and walk away, will they blame it on my being too feminine and softhearted about religion?

And from my favorite sci.skeptic psychic: "The reason more women are not adhering to the skeptic philosophies is that they have more common sense than those men pretending that they are the skeptics of this world and are definitely more open to discussion, debate, and rarely speak out until after the fact." b) Women are more illogical than men. This class of comments entailed many varied and quite interesting, and ofttimes hostile, responses (principally from men, but from women as well, although they probably would not state it so baldly). "Women do have a higher rate of belief in the paranormal after all" (to be fair this was in reference to a well-structured study by Thomas Gray and was referring to the lack of training in critical thinking among female college students --- but I sensed in other individuals a more hostile intent behind the phrase). Yet, it could be me --- after finding out that I was a female, the sci.skeptic psychic stated that "Having read this thread and the responses from others including mine, I saw no hostility from anyone. Maybe women are just too damned sensitive to discuss theories or ideas rationally without implanting their personal emotions into the foray." Or perhaps: "Well, you shouldn't ignore the fact that major parts of the "women's movement" actively oppose any sort of skepticism, in large part because it would work counter to their unfounded and preconceived conclusions." c) Women handle confrontations differently than men. Another common theme was that women have distinctly different communication styles than men do and that this influences how comfortable they are within the skeptic movement. That skeptic groups are typically composed of ". . . the socially awkward white male engineer type with pocket pen protector and few close friends . . ." and ". . . skepticism is often perceived as a negative activity performed by aggressive unpleasant male spoilsports (debunkers)." The main consensus among individuals making comments in this area is that women handle discussion ("confrontation") quite differently than men including they "take verbal confrontation more personally then men.' It is true that I do find myself labeled as "rather assertive" on my campus due to my love of debate and discussion --- it may be that I am "used to" this communication style because I am in a traditionally male-dominated profession (archaeology). The above four categories summarize the majority of responses to my query about female skeptics and perhaps reveal as much about our cultural values and perceptions (myth-perceptions as well?) as it does about the topic of gender bias in the skeptic movement. Most certainly I have barely delved into a rather complicated topic, and one that reflects our larger society. Further research, and publications, will explore the subject in greater detail.

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