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RS43 - Women in Skepticism

Release date: September 11, 2011

No, this episode is not about "elevatorgate" or the Watson-Dawkins debacle, but we do use these recent (in)famous events as a springboard for a broader discussion of women in skepticism and science. Is there a misogyny problem in the skeptic and atheist communities? Why aren't there more more women involved in these communities? Also, Julia tells us about her own experience as a young woman skeptic.

Julia's pick:  "Paul Graham Essays"

Massimo's pick: "Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities"



References (4)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (20)

This was a great episode. Regarding Jenny McCarthy, I think it perfectly makes sense to show a picture of her in bikini, because after all, this is how she made her career (more or less). It's not that she is a respected scientist or expert on autism.

Regarding sex difference in science and science careers, I recommend reading a series of articles be Ceci and Williams who show that there is no discrimination against women. Here is one article:

September 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGil

One cannot just look at women being interrupted more by men than men being interrupted by women and conclude that discrimination exists. The assumption here is that a neutral observer would interrupt men and women at the same rate, but we cannot assume this.

Omitted variable bias!

September 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAgagooga

Among other things, PZ Myers is opposed to sockpuppetry on 'net forums and boards. For the most part, I agree with him, but ever since "Elevatorgate" I think I can come up with a place where having a sockpuppet account might prove somewhat enlightening.

If a man were to set up a female sockpuppet / alter ego account, he might just get to see firsthand how often (and how quickly) this alter ego could get propositioned. There can very quickly and easily come a point where he would learn just how tiresome these kinds of things can get (to be polite). It would certainly give him some insight into how best to tone back his own behavior...

Just a thought.

September 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJim Phynn

You mentioned the possible differences between how men and women deal with social situations, and that women may tend to be less interested in conflict. I have seen this explanation applied not just to the skeptic/atheist/etc. sphere, but also to science and academia in general. The idea is that (male) professors and scientists tend to have competitive, adversarial, or even antagonistic relationships as a matter of course; they constantly question and criticize each other's conclusions and assertions. Most women who try for such positions are, in the end, unwilling to adapt to such an environment. Even worse, those who do adapt are abandoning what society has deemed appropriate behavior for women, and may end up being liked or respected even less than their confrontation-avoiding counterparts. (Women who stand up for themselves are generally viewed differently, by both women and men, than men who stand up for themselves.) Looking at things from this perspective reveals a host of behaviors that need serious work. There are steps that women can take to mitigate the immediate situation, but the real problems are the typical male behaviors and the double standards that accompany them.

September 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

It may be difficult getting data on whether women are less skeptical than men, but we have a reliable proxy variable: it has been well-demonstrated that women are more religious than men.

Also, pointing out alleged discrimination surely leads to a reduction in it. But this doesn't show that discrimination existed, just that people were keen to avoid the impression of it.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAgagooga

To me, the most interesting part of this podcast was our expectation that skeptics are going to be more reasonable and enlightened on social issues and in social behavior. It can be a huge and difficult task to apply skepticism to one's own emotions and behavior. The skeptical community may not provide the tools for this. It seems that changing some of these behaviors would require a lot of self-reflection, discussion, and maybe even therapy.

A shout-out to Julia regarding Burning Man! I wonder if you dropped by our camp, the Skeptical Bastards.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDang

As a non-drinker the nuance of alcohol consumption escapes me. Could someone explain why is it that wine drinking is the sign of intellectuality and beer drinking is an 'icon of stupidity'? Is this related to why blue collar people who haven't studied philosophy in depth can't really be happy?

October 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThameron

Amidst all the bloviating about "Elevatorgate," here's a reality check that you didn't explicitly address in the podcast:

While, I deplore sexist discrimination in the workplace (if it still exists), what Rebecca experienced in the elevator was not sexist discrimination. It was an example of natural, normal mating behavior that has always existed and will always exist. Without males taking the initiative in the mating game -- however awkward the flirting is, as in this case -- the population would plummet. Us beta males know all too well that waiting around for a women to hit on us will guarantee a life of celibacy.

Another fact about sexual politics: women often don't articulate their true thoughts, consciously or subconsciously. For example, the only thing women like less than being continuously propositioned is not being propositioned at all. When Rebecca gets older, she'll hopefully understand that "Elevatorgate" was a faux feminist issue that gets young "Womyn's Studies" majors upset, but few others.

Sorry to rain on your parade, but I'm with Dawkins on this one.

October 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMemeInjector5000

MemeInjector5000: It was more than "young "Womyn's Studies" majors" who got upset. Many people on ScienceBlogs got upset (I doubt many of them are young "Womyn's Studies" majors), and called hitting on women in elevators in the early morning potential sexual assault.

October 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAgagooga

The infamous elevator incident (let's call it the IEI -- i hate that "gate" suffix to everything scandalous) wasn't so much about how seriously threatening the incident was. Rebecca did not exaggerate or over-react to that. She was uncomfortable and frustrated with that awkward advance and said so. Nothing to see there. What was scandalous was the subsequent sarcastic response by Richard Dawkins and the megatonnes of misogynist responses in the blogosphere. Rebecca's video was, IMHO, entirely reasonable dating advice to geeks. The main point was don't scare your intended paramour by approaching her in an elevator with no one else around if you ever hope to get laid. It never was about who should take the initiative in the mating game. It wasn't even about Rebecca's cogent dating advice in that famous video. It was about the male sceptics' reactions to the incident and the video which revealed massive amounts of male insensitivity to what women have to put up given that rapes are hugely under reported and rarely successfully prosecuted whenever they are. Despite all the boneheaded responses to the video, Rebecca never did suggest she thought the guy was a rapist, nor that all men who might approach women like that were. She was simply giving very appropriate dating advice to fellow geeks.

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterufo

@Memeinjector5000 -- Rebecca's original comment didn't take men to task for taking the initiative, just criticized (1) the choice of location, and (2) the context (a professional conference). Surely you'd agree that not all contexts are appropriate for a sexual advance? In someone's dissertation defense? In a job interview? Rebecca was arguing that a professional conference is one of those contexts. You can argue against that. But arguing against the claim that men shouldn't approach women at all is arguing against a straw man.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef

@Agagooga -- Yup.

For those who need clarification, here's an example of Agagooga's point. Let's say researchers found that:

Women interrupt Men at a rate of 2/10
Men interrupt Women at a rate of 5/10

Looks sexist, right? But we're missing the information about how much women interrupt other women and men interrupt other men. There are values those variables could take which would reverse the appearance of sexism. For example:

Women interrupt Women at a rate of 1/10
Men interrupt Men at a rate of 8/10

Given those numbers, the *overall* rate of getting interrupted if you're a woman would be: 3/10, and the overall rate of getting interrupted if you're a man would be 5/10.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef

Julia said: "Rebecca was arguing that a professional conference is one of those contexts. You can argue against that."

Well, since you asked...

I really do understand that point. Watson goes to skeptic conferences because it's her profession, and she expects them to be professional events.

However, for many people, they are also social events. This is somewhat out of necessity, given the relatively small size of the skeptic/atheist/rationalist community compared to the population at large. We must also note the pervasive gender gap in the community. While I commented previously on the sexist behaviors which contribute to this gap, they are not the sole cause of it. Women tend to be more religious than men, and this is a longitudinal result with plausible explanations from evolutionary psychology. (The correlation of atheism with skepticism and rationality is not, I trust, too controversial.) Many (straight) men in the community are interested in finding a romantic partner of a like mind; they may have virtually zero chances to meet such a woman outside of conferences like this, which bring the community together.

MemeInjector5000 said: "Us beta males know all too well that waiting around for a women to hit on us will guarantee a life of celibacy. " Now take that in the context of a gender gap that is likely to keep being a problem for quite a while. Watson gets disutility from context-related discomfort, as she described, but the man who propositioned her, as well as many more like him, get disutility from their context of being largely without any real romantic prospects. We have to consider both of their disutilities when judging the situation and related situations. I do not intend this as a justification for his actions, but as a request for sympathy, and a request that we not immediately frame such situations solely in the general feminist vs. male privilege context.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

At one point in this podcast, if I recall correctly, Massimo was pretty critical of Larry Summers' speculations regarding gender inequalities in the sciences. When talking about the lack of women in skepticism (or science in general), isn't it possible that there are scientific and evolutionary reasons for this?

Clearly both men and women are intellectually capable of the same things. However, there is indeed scientific data showing that the male distribution of IQ scores has fatter tails than does the female distribution. In other words, there are more males clustered together at the extremes. Larry Summers, again if I recall correctly, was not claiming that men are innately smarter than women. He was merely hypothesizing as to why there might be more men in scientific fields. Based on the IQ data, his hypothesis seems pretty reasonable, right? It seems to me like he was on pretty solid scientific grounds for making his speculations, but he was lambasted for making his speculations anyway. Shouldn't his hypothesis be entertained as a reasonable explanation for the gender differences in the sciences, even if the result may not, in current cultural fashions, be politically correct? Isn't the purpose of science to get at truth, even if isn't politically correct (this relates to the Paul Graham essay Julia recommended, which has long been a favorite of mine too, called "What You Can't Say"?)

Psychologist Roy Baumeister wrote a very interesting book about gender and political correctness called Is there Anything Good About Men?

January 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Linster

The idea that IQ distributions for men have a higher variance does not hold up very well. See, for example, this recent study.

January 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

Interuppting men and women

It's possible that men interrupt women more than they interrupt men, but one must consider that in a conference discussing women's issues, the attendees have strong opinions. There could be a bit of selection bias in that the men who regard women as inferior might be overrepresented among the men who attend a conference like this.

It could also be that the women who are speaking in such meetings are speaking on favor of women, and the men who attend these are more opposed to those ideas and hence interrupt those ideas more than others. It might just so happen that the women were the ones who put forth those ideas.

We must also determine if women typically speak faster than men, which means they get to their points quicker. In such cases, they might be interrupted sooner than the men.

The fact that the interruptions reduced when Dr. Sandler made the men aware of their bias (real or not) is no proof that the men made a conscious/subconscious change on moral grounds. It could just mean that they made sure they didn't appear to be biased. That's a bad thing. Politically correct chiding drives biases underneath.


It is no secret that women get hit on more than men. It is ingrained by evolution and adaptation in men to be the 'hunters'. However, we can experiment with this by asking gay men and women how often they're propositioned. That might act as a control to measure the 'hitting-on' frequency of men and women. There's selection bias here too considering that gay men and women who are out of the closet might end up being more confident than their closeted counterparts.

All Rebecca Watson said was her opinion as a woman (as in "Guys, don't do that."); and criticizing her on that front is a little annoying.

However, I can't help but wonder if the infamous horny-elevator-dude had said, "I think you're very interesting; I would love to speak at length with you over coffee sometime." It's still an enclosed space in a foreign country at 4am. Would she still feel threatened and afraid to refuse? Also, is it possible that Ms. Watson was simply offended that in such a cerebral event, she was still being objectified?

BTW I love the podcast.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiberalcynic

Clarification in my last paragraph:

However, I can't help but wonder if it would've bothered Ms. Watson as much if the guy had said, "I think you're very interesting; I would love to speak at length with you over coffee sometime." It's still an enclosed space in a foreign country at 4am. Would she still feel threatened and afraid to refuse?

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiberalcynic

Great episode, which I've (obviously) come across belatedly. Regarding Rebecca Watson, she's managed to rile up the skeptic world again this year by refusing to attend TAM on the grounds that she feels "unsafe" around skeptics, or some such. This has occasioned much hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing and navel-gazing among the "skeptic community," with such questions as "does the skeptic community have a problem with sexual harassment?"

To many of us, however, it appears that Ms. Watson is merely looking for, and receiving, more attention for herself and her Skeptchick crew. Wonder what next year holds...

July 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJBirks

JBirks - Watson did not attend TAM this year due to a disagreement with DJ Grothe. You can read about her reasoning here:
I think she was truly upset and not "looking for attention."

July 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDang
From this episode and the comments, it seems like men probably just interrupt EVERYONE more. This fits the stereotypical expectation that men act more aggressively.

Making hateful, violent, misogynist comments on the internet hardly advances the claim that a woman in an elevator alone with a man has nothing to worry about.

The reasonableness of Rebecca Watson's concern depends on how well she new the man who propositioned her. Really, as a matter of civility, a man should not proposition a woman at 4 AM in an elevator unless she knows him fairly well. Men do have a duty to act in a gentle manner towards women. Stereotypically, men have much more physical strength and sexual aggression than women. Therefore men should conduct themselves in a manner that makes women feel comfortable. We can understand this social faux pas by noting that both Rebecca and her propositioner just exited the bar at 4 AM, presumably after having consumed alcohol for several hours. The propositioner probably just did not think things through and this caused him to act a bit rudely. Since Rebecca merely asked men to stop this and act more politely, and did not seek anyone's arrest or public shaming or even name this particular man who propositioned her, it seems she made a perfectly reasonable request.

Perhaps not the nicest way to settle this dispute, but at your next conference, you could have two guys proposition a series of ten random women late at night in the elevator, and then have a woman known to these ten women ask each women how she feels right after she steps out of the elevator. Have both men unknown to all of the women. Have Guy #1 be a really good looking model, and Guy #2 just average. Then you can make note of the number of women who felt uncomfortable, felt comfortable, or outright decided to go to bed with Guy #1 or Guy #2.
January 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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