January 11, 2012

Sexism in the Atheist Community: We Have a Problem

we have a problemWhat type of atheist community do we want? I want an atheist community that is diverse and that goes far beyond merely tolerating diversity. I want an atheist community that celebrates diversity and that strives to be welcoming to all atheists.

This is not the sort of atheist community we currently have. How do I know? First and most importantly, I have heard the accounts of many atheist women. Many have not experienced our community as particularly welcoming. It is great that some have, but many others have not. In fact, many have felt marginalized and have described the atheist community as a "boys' club." A few examples:
  • Some women report that their contributions and those of other women are not taken as seriously during meetings or group interactions as the contributions of men.
  • Prominent female atheists are often overlooked at conferences or various lists of influential atheists.
  • There is a tendency for women to be sexualized, even in contexts that have nothing to do with sex.
What makes me think that the atheist community has a problem with sexism? Many women have said so. Isn't that enough? It is for me, but there are two other factors I'd like to mention even though they are somewhat extraneous.

Second, I've seen evidence of sexism for myself (and not just on r/atheism). Women are frequently sexualized in ways that men do not experience. Their appearance becomes a point of discussion in ways it rarely is for men. It is not enough for some to express their agreement with these women; they need to tell us what they would like to do to them sexually. I have seen the defensive reactions from some men when someone tries to discuss sexism in our community. And I think we've all seen the gender-specific insults hurled at women who dare to point out sexism.

Third, a compelling case can be made that those of us in the atheist community who have turned a blind eye to sexism, minimized its relevance, or attacked those who raise it as a concern are an important part of the problem. Collectively, we have made sexism more permissible in our community than it should be. Even if the overt sexism is coming from a tiny minority within our community, the rest of us are not freed from responsibility. Many of us have engaged in subtle forms of sexism; many more have simply gone along with it.

We have a problem. We have a problem because many women are telling us that they do not feel welcome in our community. We have a problem because the evidence of sexism (and even misogyny) is there for all to see. We have a problem because our inaction has fostered a climate where sexism can persist. We can do better.

Next post in the series: initial objections

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