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Where the Boys Are

by Brian Dunning, Aug 13 2009

Lately I’ve been thinking about the gender inequality within the skeptical movement. It was estimated that The Amaz!ng Meeting in Las Vegas this year was only 30% women. Here in Newport Beach, we had our best-attended OC Skeptics in the Pub last week, with a turnout of 30. There were only 5 women; that’s a 6:1 ratio.

Theories abound. Is there something about critical thinking that doesn’t appeal to women? Are women more emotional and nurturing, and less analytical? Do women tend to be less interested in the sciences?

I don’t think it has to do with participation in science. Having visited quite a few science labs in practically every discipline, I see roughly as many women as men working. Granted we still have progress yet to make in equal representation in management roles, but that’s a separate issue.

An exception, in my experience, is software and computer engineering, a field that still seems dominated by guys who are, well, like me, quite frankly. Dorks, to describe myself, and any other people in the field who voluntarily choose to accept the label. Software conferences I’ve attended have been overwhelmingly populated by men. Why the software engineering field is so heavily dominated by men has always been a complete mystery to me. But I’m not attempting to address that here; I’m simply offering it as an assumption upon which I base my hypothesis. Feel free to offer any sound criticism of that assumption.

It is, perhaps, a not-so-strange coincidence that so many attendees of The Amaz!ng Meeting come from software engineering. Perhaps the overlap of software guys and skepticism is largely responsible for the gender imbalance we see at TAM.

Another group with demographics hauntingly similar to skeptics is the UFO and conspiracy theory crowd. Go to a UFO conference, and you’ll see more software guys than anyone else, and the crowd as a whole will be overwhelmingly men.

This is just a hypothesis I’ve been tossing around in my own head, and I don’t pretend to assign it any undue merit; so don’t ride me out of town on a rail for sharing it. It seems to me that skepticism and UFOlogy are similar in that they can be largely practiced by Internet forum posting. In fact it seems to me that the mindsets of the two can easily blur. They’re both about searching the Internet for evidence, arguing that your evidence is better than the other guy’s, proudly calling oneself open minded and proclaiming the other guy closed minded, and doing it all from behind the safety of a computer monitor. Who sits at computer monitors all day long? Software engineers.

I’ve seen this pattern too many times to dismiss it, and I’ve seen enough women working in science, that I feel confident enough to form a hypothesis. The relative scarcity of women within the skeptical movement has nothing to do with any sort of disinterest in critical thinking or science by women. Rather, it has to do with the large dilution of software guys poured into the mix, to whom the everyday practice of web-based skepticism is really appealing. Among those who make skeptical outreach and science education their career (or a large part of it), I propose that women are, in fact, equally represented. It’s just that gatherings like The Amaz!ng Meeting also attract a large gallery of software guys, and give the appearance of gender inequality.

I’ve re-read this several times before posting it, and there’s no doubt that a considerable number of readers are going to be offended by it. I make no pretense at diplomatic skills, I just think it’s an important topic and well deserving of open discussion. I therefore offer myself as the fall guy to absorb any and all charges of bias against men, women, software guys, UFO guys, software women, UFO women, errant sasquatches, guys like me, or anyone else who feels insulted. I certainly don’t have all the answers, maybe some of you can help get us there.

115 Responses to “Where the Boys Are”

  1. Cronan says:

    I’ll out my hands up here and admit to also being a geek, a dork, even. At school I was on the chess club, the debating time and the computer club. I play D&D and computer games.

    I’m certainly not offended by this posting.

  2. dave gamble says:

    The entire topic of gender bias is very interesting and well worth discussing. To add in my 2c worth …
    – As another techie, yes indeed its mostly guys I work with on a day-to-day basis … so why is it like this?

    My thinking is that its a social expectation and nothing more. For example, if you check the list of those attending a yoga class, quilt making class or fashion design workshop I suspect the majority would not be male … simply because that what society expects and most will conform to those social pressures …
    – Your average guy standing over the water cooler discussing the fantastic time he had at the quilt making class the previous evening with his mates would find he draws a few funny looks. Thats an experience most average guys would wish to avoid, so they don’t participate in activities that would generate -ve social pressure

    The reality is that there are specific things that are more socially acceptable for a specific gender … hence the gender bias we see.

    Finally … as for TAM, I suspect you are correct, there is not a gender skeptic bias, but rather a lot of techies attending that cause the preception of such a bias.

  3. dave gamble says:

    Oh and one additional thought … gender bias is not static, it can dramatically change …

    Today we think of “Pink” for girls and “blue” for boys. 100 years ago it was completely reversed … it was “pink” for boys and “blue” for girls. An American newspaper in 1914 advised mothers, “If
    you like the color note on the little one’s garments, use pink for the
    boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.” [The
    Sunday Sentinal, March 29, 1914.] … so gender bias is not static and can dramatically change and switch the other way … perhaps TAM-2097 will be 97% female and just 3% guys :-)

  4. There was an SGU episode awhile back where Rebecca mentioned some survey stating that women were more likely to believe in all sorts of supernatural claims than men were. I tried to find that survey and came across another one saying that there was no difference. I’m not sure which to believe. I lean slightly towards thinking that there actually is a difference because it is pretty well established that women tend to be more religious.

    • Podblack says:

      You can find the research on my site over several posts (the site is searchable and there’s an index near the banner) – the survey you are probably thinking of is just the one example by Gallop in the 90s?. My own research, of about 1243 people does indicate a higher tendency for women to believe across paranormal, pseudoscience and even conspiracy theories. If you’re at Dragon*Con this year, you can even attend a presentation on it. :)

  5. Kenn says:

    You are not alone.

    Note that only five of Obama’s 44 “Czars” are women.

    BTW, in addition to gender, how were ethnic groups represented?

  6. Andrew says:

    I see no reason to assume that the biased sex ratio in the software engineering sector is a consequence of social expectations. It seems to be fashionable right now to assign all differences in behaviour and preferences between men and women to social factors but I find this disingenuous. Consider the biased sex ratio of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Whatever else causes ASD, it seems to me that the sex ratio indicates that there is something about males that makes them more susceptible. Are children so strongly socialized by 18 to 24 months that social factors can explain the sex bias? I don’t think so. So that leaves a genetic component. So why can’t there be a genetic component that predisposes men to seek careers in software engineering?

    But I don’t think genetics can explain all differences between men and women either. Neither extreme seems particularly plausible to me.

    The idea that skeptical meetings are dominated by men because of an influx of software engineers is an interesting one. I fall squarely within that demographic so my presence would tend to support Brian’s idea. I wonder if the biased sex ratio extends to donors to the JREF? Are just as many women as men donating to the JREF but just not bothering to show up for TAM? I think that would indicate something different than if the same biased sex ratio extended to the donors list.

    • LKL says:

      I think that two factors inhibit the *diagnosis* of girls with ASDs. First, being ‘shy’ (not wanting to touch strangers) and ‘bashful’ (not wanting to meet the eyes) are not considered faults in girls, and secondly obsession with things like horses, shoes, or unicorns is considered normal. It’s also possible that normal female wiring blunts the genetic effects of ASDs.

  7. Tracy King says:

    How many of the people in the photograph at the top of this blog are software engineers?

    • This was huge. When we were casting The Skeptologists, we realized immediately that our “dream team” of Most Popular Skeptics was all white guys. We actually did the best we could to temper the cast with women and minorities who were (A) in or near Los Angeles, (B) Ph.Ds in the fields where we still needed a cast member, (C) had great new-media followings, (D) were skeptical, (E) had great on-camera personalities and would work well on TV. As you point out, we were not as successful as we wish we could have been.

  8. Gabor Hrasko says:

    Well, I am working on the software business also :)

    Here in Hungary we have the same gender ration among skeptics. Yes, ufologists are mostly men here as well. I also found that CAM practitioners (in Hungary they are real doctors) are far mostly women. When I am invited to TV shows to debate about esotery, I meet mostly women – though the head of the “sect” or group is generally male.

    I think a kind of sample (selection) bias might play a role here. Skepticism – at least the active one that is necessary for playing an acting role in a skeptic community – requires some willingness to confront and sometimes fight. On the other hand CAM is putting a great emphasis on practitioner – patient relationship and the social approach also important in several fields of esotery.

    So even if the overall bell curve of intelligence and even rational thinking is the same for men and women (in the whole population), participation in skeptical and in esotheric activities is biased by other factors: like ready to confront versus building relationships.

    Sorry for my pure English. I hope it was understandable.

  9. dave gamble says:

    Hi Andrew … I was not suggesting that social factors account for ALL gender differences, I simply made the observation that it might account for a gender bias with regards to the participation of a specific gender in a specific activity … and if I am to be honest, I have no evidence … but then I suspect you might not have an evidence for an alternative … (but I’m quite happy to be proven wrong) … I’m just speculating. I do take your point regarding Autism and can accept that perhaps something genetic and male specific happening here … but thats a long way from making a career decision. I cannot see how a genetic component might create a gender bias for career choice. But I can indeed see how social pressure might create such a bias.

    • Andrew says:

      Dave, your point about lack of evidence is well taken. If the hypothesis is that software engineering (or engineering in general) is gender biased towards males because of genetic factors, I suppose one way to test it would be to look at disparate cultures and see if the gender bias holds.

      One confounding factor in this kind of test would be the opportunities women have to enter engineering careers in different cultures.

  10. I don’t know, Brian. Maybe my experiences in the field are atypical, but if TAM is dominated by software guys, it seems like we would have a lot more Indians there. Asian folks are a huge part of the software world, in the States and elsewhere.

    At least, it seems so to me in my nonscientific mental tallying.

  11. mathyoo says:

    I’m not sure about the skeptical movement’s bias, but I suspect that part of the reason the software industry is so male-dominated is that the male brain seems to have more obsessive tendencies, and we are more capable of focusing our entire lives around a single subject (I read a really interesting article on that recently, but unfortunately couldn’t find it.)

    The article I mentioned above also postulated that the tendency to focus on a single subject or area of interest (sometimes to the detriment of the social, family and even work areas of life) was one reason that women are underrepresented in the “tops of their respective field”, especially in science, as I recall. For software engineers, at least among the large number of them I’ve known, their interest in writing code developed at an early age and took up much of their free time and interest as an adolescent and teen, while many girls of that same age are much more social. Of course, anecdotes are not data, but I think it would be an interesting hypothesis to pursue.

    • Brian M says:

      Please look up this article. I really really want to read this. If its true, it could really shed some light on some things.

    • LovleAnjel says:

      It might be that men are “allowed” to focus more than women. Women are expected to make home/family/friends a big portion of their lives, while men are not (as much). I was always confused by the fact that I was expected to be on the phone with friends 24/7 and not focused on solo pursuits (and my relatives and friends were confused/insulted that I wasn’t).

  12. Adam_Y says:

    Ahhh yes the anecdote game. Vast majority of science labs I’ve been to have been male dominated. Not even close to a 50 50 mix.

  13. Don’t think analytics. Think testosterone.

  14. I think the software engineer (and hey, engineers in general) male bias is playing a role.

    However, my involvement with the skeptical movement started in the early 90s before the world wide web really came into use. The skeptical movement was just, if not more, male dominated back then. In fact, the only real difference now is that the skeptical movement is younger now – it was almost all old white guys back in the day.

    Regarding minorities at TAM – worse this year than the last two. Very very few.

    This is an enigma I do not think we have yet tackled.

  15. Shannon says:

    There is a part of the feminist community that rejects the objective scientific method as patriarchal and prefers feminine, subjective knowledge. This groundless dismissal of science seems as flawed as religious faith; both institutionalize willful ignorance. I don’t have any actual numbers, but I would hypothesize that this brand of feminists is the type to practice New Age “medicine,” accept anti-vaccination propoganda, join PETA, and insist that if you don’t eat organic you are poisoning yourself. As a woman and a non-scientist (an English lit major, in fact – a department replete with pseudoscience), I can attest to the variation among female skeptics; we are not uniformly scientists. Women may be more apt, however, to do themselves a disservice by subscribing to an ideology rather than basing beliefs on evidence.

    • Richard says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head. My full time job is in a male dominated field (engineering) and my part time job is in a female dominated field (Disney travel planning)and I see stark differences in the decision making processes between men and women. Men tend to follow a very logical progression while women tend to follow a more emotional one. To a point science and skepticism need to be devoid of emotion and based solely on facts. I can only speak form a male perspective but in my eyes this way of thinking would be out of the comfort zone for many women much like dealing with emotionally driven issues is out of the comfort zone many men. Because of this I assume that some women will feel like a fish out of water in a skeptical crowd and therefore don’t associate with it.

    • Brian M says:

      I remember reading an article about “feminine science” or whatnot. That somehow women’s perspective was different, and that the male version of science was inferior.

      However, from the one I read, it was about psychology and the treatment of men versus women BY men versus women. In that case, I think there really is a difference in the understanding from a male versus female perspective. It was a while ago, and I really don’t remember what it was even called, so I can’t really look it up.

      As a short aside, modern feminism in western society can be pretty laughable. There isn’t much of a fight left, so some groups are trying to grasp at straws. Like trying to change the word “women” to “womyn”, as if the 3 letter grouping of “men” somehow subjugates women. If thats the case, we should change the word slaughter, as its just too funny without a single letter.

  16. Becca Stareyes says:

    A friend also observed that of the grad students in our department, if you look at the numbers, you see about one woman for every two men*, but if you ask the average person in the department, you’ll probably be told that it’s a 50-50 split. Things vary from biology where it is an even split, to physics and engineering where it’s several times worse.

    There’s also some studies being done — I’m afraid I can’t cite them, though — about how gender bias can be self-perpetuating. That people don’t like entering a program where they know they will be in a substantial minority. Some might do it anyway — we still have female physicists and engineers, after all — but there’s some kind of threshold effect. If you get a certain gender ratio in the crowd, it starts to feel like a real mixed-sex gathering, rather than a place that’s mostly male/female.

    (Also, one tends to bring friends into one’s hobbies — if people tend to have same-sex friends, then more men will enter the movement than women.)

    * We’re astronomers.

    (Funnily enough, a lot of the other corners of the internet I hang out with — mostly fan sites for TV series and writing communities — are mostly female. Gets to be that there are places on the internet where I’ll assume an unknown with a gender-neutral handle is a woman or girl until proven otherwise.)

  17. Shannon says:

    A link to an article by one such feminist:

    • LKL says:

      BS like that undermines not only feminism but women in science.

      • LKL says:

        I should have added, I run (to some extent) in both feminist and scientific circles, and I haven’t heard either set of colleagues make claims like that. I hope it’s just another nasty but vocal minority.

  18. SkepLit says:

    Add me as a data point in favor of your hypothesis. I am involved in scepticism (and, earlier, as a looney who believed in wild conspiracy theories) because my job in IT allows me to browse the intertubes all day and all night.

  19. SkepLit says:

    Actually, the fact that I felt I didn’t have to explicitly state that I am male is further evidence of something…

  20. Lysistrata says:

    I am thinking it is a combined issue. One is the fact that alas men still dominate in the science related fields. Another is the fact that women are still epected to do two jobs in our society. We are still the primary care givers, cooks, and home cleaners-you get the drift plus we are working in day jobs. I admit that there are times when I just don’t have the energy to attend Drinking Skeptically or other skeptic events. On the other hand if you are single male or your wife is taking care of things at home it is much easier to be social.

    So, I think that you will see a lot of unmarried women who are attracted to the movement while they are in school or starting out professionally. When these women get married and start a family, they will drift out of it because of the dual role expected of them.
    So a question is not only how do we attract women but how do we keep them as their life gets more complicated.

  21. Leslie Haber says:

    Alternative hypothesis: We’re out there. We’re just too busy with real life to attend gatherings. That’s sort of a guy thing.

    • Brian M says:

      Well, thats just offensive. How is doing something someone likes, with people they enjoy being around, not “real life”? Being in “reality” and espousing a better understanding of “reality” now isn’t “real” enough to be considered “real life”? Must be a chick thing.

      • Lisa says:

        I find your “chick thing” comment somewhat offensive. I think possibly what Leslie meant is that going out and being social is somewhat of a luxury for those with families. The skeptic movement (in my experience) seems to be more concerned with going out and getting drunk than doing much else. One of the main reasons I did not attend TAM was because it was not family friendly. If you want more women, you need have something for families. At least some kind of childcare so parents can attend some of the meetings. Dragon Con does this. I want my kids to grow up as part of the skeptic community, but many of the the skeptic gatherings are inappropriate for kids. I don’t expect to be catered to just because I have kids, but the skeptic population will need replenishing at some point.

        I think women tend to be more drawn to the biological science. My lab in grad school was almost all women.

      • Brian M says:

        Yea, but family friendly means non-family unfriendly. Besides, there has to be about equal parts male to female non-family types that would go to this. That still doesn’t address the issue.

        And I’m glad you found it offensive. Thats exactly what I was going for. Not to offend you per se, but to offend the poster.

      • Lysistrata says:

        Family friendly doesn’t always mean non-family unfriendly. You can have both. As the skeptic movement grows it will need to adapt. As an organizer for one of the meetup groups, I have tried to arrange some family friendly events to assure that skeptics with families can participate but this didn’t mean that people without families couldn’t attend.
        Offering child care is a way to allow adults to attend a conference without having to make it totally family oriented. TAM in Vegas is not what I would call family friendly at all. It was a lot about drinking in the bars with very little to do for people who won’t interested in not drinking so people who have to decided between a family vacation and TAM will most likely choose the family vacation.

  22. Jim Shaver says:


    A ratio of 25 men to 5 women is a 5:1 ratio, not 6:1. I wouldn’t mention it, except that you’re a software engineer, for skepticism’s sake! :)

  23. miller says:

    The nice thing about your hypothesis is that it makes a definite prediction! Take a survey of people who attended TAM, throw out everyone who works with software or computer engineering, and see how much the gender imbalance is reduced. I’m just guessing, but I think the gender imbalance would still remain.

  24. Jeremy says:

    Brian, there may be something to this, if indeed a lot of software engineers are in the group. I’ve taught an Introduction to Signal Processing course for a couple years. Generally, all the electrical engineering majors are male (about 90%). However, the biomedical engineers must also take the course and the percentage of males is much lower (my guess is around 60%). An interesting thing I’ve found is that women feel intimidated when they take this course. This is usually a great surprise to me because women generally do much better in the course. However, they have the impression that they are struggling.

    I’ve thought a lot about this and I’ve hypothesized that the issue is not that women are afraid of math, science, or programming. After all, they tend to do quite well. Rather, it’s a reaction to the men around them. When men are struggling with a subject, they tend not to show signs or ask for help. Usually, if a male student was struggling, they would continue to do worse or they would ask for help, but only when no-one was around; i.e., it’s all about pride. However, women were usually more likely to show their struggles openly and would state that they needed help. I can only imagine how intimidating it is to them that it appears that men don’t need help. I can totally understand why women fear or do want to be in that crowd. They are being completely rational and honest. I still don’t know what can be done about it. Usually, I tell the girl that she’s not alone and usually, I can say that she’s not doing poor in the class. Usually, she’s doing fine.

  25. Cthandhs says:

    I believe that culturally narrow groups will tend to perpetuate their narrowness until, as suggested above, a critical mass is reached. I recently listend to the SGU episode on Sexism in the skeptic mo0vement, and before I deeply offend everyone, I want to state that I do *not* believe skeptics or the movement are inherently sexist.

    There is, however, a certain lockeroom mentality that comes across in the online stuff. It is the same in male-dominated tech fields and hobbies, such as gaming. Most of your audience are men, and most of the recognized personalities are men, so people say things that create a barrier to women feeling comfortable in the community. For example, most of the skeptical anecdotes I hear are about a foolish mother, aunt or sister. The oft-mentioned heavy hitters in non-science are Oprah and Jenny McCarthy. None of this is *intentionaly* meant to offend women, or drive them away, but it does make an unwelcoming community.

    For the flip-side, if a man could secretly overhear a girls night out and the discussion about what makes a man worthwhile, you might not feel very comfortable. The ladies are not trying to offend or denigrate their friends, boyfriends, husbands or lovers. They’re just being themselves.

    You want to see more women and/or minorities engaged in skepticism. Pretend like they’re already there. When you write an article, tell a story, choose a topic, interview a personality, act like you have a mixed audience. Mix up the gender roles a little bit, get speakers who have a different perspective. Gender and culture make a big difference to feeling included.

    I work in a tech field and I have a tech degree. The thing that made the biggest difference in school was female teachers, advisors and role-models. Women, in my experience, are just as interested in this stuff as men, but when you’ve had a busy day/life, you’re going to choose the career/club/meeting/association with the highest comfort and lowest barriers to entry.

    • LKL says:

      This is an important point, not just for women. It’s not unusual to hear skeptics talk about how ridiculous the ‘politically correct’ movement is, as though being polite and not treating other people like idiots without solid evidence were some sort of sin against skepticism. For example, I can recall a ‘Point of Inquiry’ podcast where ‘The Bell Curve’ was brought up with the implication that it was only denigrated by the scientific community because it was politically incorrect. Why do we attack creationist ‘science’ as bullshit, but not racist ‘science’ with just as dubious a use of statistics? Why was Larry Summers defended as some sort of skeptical martyr?

      A lot of skeptics are surprisingly *un*skeptical when it comes to upholding their own superiority.

      • Podblack says:

        The Skeptic Zone podcast is dominated by women reporters – and there is a good mix in our interviews of women. Hope you all catch the next lot of Think Tanks that happen to feature women, talking as the skeptics they are. :)

  26. Scott says:

    Brian, I think you’re on to something, but I would add the influence of the gaming culture. A vast majority of the software types I know got into programming because they were ardent gamers. These are the folks who spend hours overclocking their CPUs so they can get a smoother experience for their first-person-shooter. Also they are the same ones who spend all hours of the weekend at a LAN party. Overclocking and gaming networking require a certain amount of work beyond installing before gaming can begin, hence a higher likelyhood of certain software skills. The demographic for these types of games is decidedly male. The games are designed to appeal to young men and are aggressively marketed as such. There are, of course, female gamers, but the types of games I typically see appealing and being marketed to them aren’t the type that demand ultra-high performance, hence no need for overclocking and hacking.

    So if software types are responsible for the skeptical gender imbalance, that could be further explained by gender specific gaming preferences.

  27. Max says:

    I imagine that women outnumber men at psychic expos, spiritual healing festivals, John Edward shows, etc. I propose busing them over to skeptic conferences.

    • kabol says:

      does anyone know the ratio of female vs. male when it comes to media psychics, woo convention promoters, and paranormal authors?

      it seems to me it’s higher for male, maybe cause they have less morals and more business sense.

  28. Neil Polzin says:

    yes, BUT there is hope. Keep in mind of the 7 people for skeptics in a jeep 4 where women, (and 3 of 7 vegans) how about that for minority representation

  29. Females prefer to qualify, males to quantify.

  30. Max says:

    It is, perhaps, a not-so-strange coincidence that so many attendees of The Amaz!ng Meeting come from software engineering. Perhaps the overlap of software guys and skepticism is largely responsible for the gender imbalance we see at TAM.

    Was the number of engineers enough to be largely responsible for the gender imbalance? Conduct a survey.

    Does the Center for Inquiry have similar demographics?

  31. Max says:

    Who sits at computer monitors all day long? Software engineers.

    Sys admins, managers, HR specialists, policy analysts, writers, graphic designers, accountants, librarians…

  32. Brian M says:

    I don’t know if I would call that inequality. Its more divergent gender representation. Inequality brings “women are not equal” to mind, as if skeptics and computer geeks are actively against women in the field.

    I think you are on to something with the “armchair” skeptic (or even computer chair skeptic).

    I know from my experience in software (and hardware) related computing fields, that women are extremely underrepresented. In classes of 30, there would be 2 women. There are some really smart women in computing, so its not possible that women just aren’t capable of being good with computers.

    I think it may be related to societies general bias that women are “people” oriented, where men are “machine” (or other non-personal) oriented. Men build buildings, while women teach school and become nurses, or so the gender stereotype portrays. Women don’t want to go into computers because its “too geeky”, and not “personal”. Where men don’t want to go into teaching or nursing because its too “feminine”.

    But, I also think there could be a definite bias in the general way that men and women’s brains are wired. While it is only anecdotal, and should carry little weight, from my experience, men think things through more. Without being a self declared skeptic, the men I have encountered are generally more cerebral, in that they investigate things. The women around just seem to accept things. I seem to recall a study that there are more male atheists then female, which follows from that as well.

    I have been reading some books lately that describe pick up artists (I really don’t want to be one, but I want to understand what goes on in their mind so I’m not a chump they can toy with, the same reason I watch skeptic videos and read skeptic books). One common tactic is to play the ‘do you believe in psychic abilities’, then proceed to do some close up magic. They use it as a means to their goal, regardless of what you think about that goal. It got me thinking, perhaps men are really causing this skeptic divide. Some men feed women’s brains with non-skeptical information, while at the same time, actively humiliate other men who actually believe in the woo. That is, nobody is breaking the woo spell on the women, because it would hinder their “progress”. Most women have met, or actively meet the type of people who pull this stuff on them. If they have not been primed to think about things critically, then they will accept it. I’m sure if mate selection in humans was done by men, women would be doing the same thing, and men would be the ones under represented in the skeptic community. If all you hear is one opinion, you likely won’t come to the other opinion on your own (aside from the really really smart folks). Its the same mechanism that gets UFO believers stuck in the “everyone believes in UFOs” mentality, since they surround themselves with other UFO believers.

    In any case, I think it would be useful for someone to do a study (formal or informal, perhaps Brian should do it for his new web series). Do a street poll (perhaps get a magician, or get Mark Edwards), and ask if people believe in XYZ magic. Then do a magic trick, and get the reactions. Gauge if their reaction is “how did you do that” versus, “wow, you have magic abilities”. You need the “entry” poll as well, so you can gauge if people were already predisposed to think magic is real changed their mind or not. Then tally it based on gender. My hypothesis is that women will be more likely to be on the side of “you are magic” then men will be.

    And as a final note, if there is a clear (or even perceived) gender difference, don’t be afraid to say so. Its not sexist to ask these questions. It is sexist to answer them without actual evidence or with fallacious evidence. While anecdotal evidence is not good evidence, it is still evidence that can get you started (as you said in your wonderful podcast). These anecdotes (mine, and other commenters) could get a good start on some real science and evidence. I don’t have to tell you; you already know this.

  33. kabol says:

    perhaps it was simply that more men had the means and time to travel to las vegas.

    or perhaps it was the fact that gender bias is everywhere, so why NOT skepticism? imho, at the elementary education level, girls likely do as well if not better than boys when it comes to critical thinking skills.

    it’s when the parents impress their own social and religious values on children and teens that those skills seem to become dulled in many women.

    i say start focusing skepticism toward where it’s going to get you more bang for your buck: children and education.

    • oldebabe says:

      No `perhaps’ about it. Good reply.

    • Max says:

      i say start focusing skepticism toward where it’s going to get you more bang for your buck: children and education

      Who educates the children? Mostly women.

      • kabol says:

        who creates and administrates standards and practices in public education? mostly men.

        who passes or doesn’t pass educational laws? mostly men.

      • Max says:

        Do you really think that educational laws, standards, and practices discourage girls (more than boys) from practicing critical thinking?

      • kabol says:

        of course not and i never stated or even intimated as much. you said that (mostly) women are the ones teaching and i pointed out that (mostly) men are the ones legislating and administrating what can be taught.

        perhaps i misunderstood your point, so what exactly was your point in stating that mostly women are the ones doing the teaching?

  34. joethehappyheretic says:

    I just finished reading Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”. His chapter on gender may hold some clues. I don’t have it with me anymore, but if I remember correctly, on average, women are by nature drawn to activities that have more to do with people, compassion, humanities, etc, whereas men’s nature (again, on average) leans towards the other end of the scale. Although I’m sure there are plenty of female skeptics out there, it’s possible that they allocate their free-time to different priorities. I’d be interested to see what the splits are for soup kitchens, clothing drives, hospital volunteers, children’s advocacy, etc. Maybe they just weigh their “causes” (I say again . . on average) differently than we do. Which is fine. Everything doesn’t need to be 50/50 in practice. Let’s not confuse equality of outcome with equlaity of opportunity.

    • Brian M says:

      That may be a very interesting idea. Women just don’t allocate the same kind of time men do to organized gatherings, especially of this nature. Maybe the number of skeptics is equal, but women just don’t want to be associated with this type of gathering. Obviously, there is a real tangible benefit from going to this type of thing, or following skepticism, so they do miss out. That could explain quite a bit of it really.

  35. Mully410 says:

    I have a couple questions that I’ve been unable to resolve, so far.

    It seems that some people are either ashamed or uncomfortable if the ratio of certain groups isn’t “equal” or “fair.” Where does the optimum ratio come from? Is it based on world population, local population, what?

    Should we always expect groups to reflect a certain population distribution based on gender and race? Why?

    I guess for me it boils down to, so what. If I’ve done everything to be fair and inclusive to everyone who wants to join my group or participate in a certain career, should I feel bad if I only attract a narrow demographic?

    • Brian M says:

      I think it comes from an overstepping of previous “equality” related causes. Equality in jobs, for example, was a good cause. Back when there was a real bias, and prejudice against women. See “mad men”. Now that they know how to fight against this type of prejudice, they are looking for a new battle to fight.

      Its like the salty war vet, who can kill 100 with his bare hands. He comes back from the war, and doesn’t know how to live in the society he fought for. He may re-enlist in other wars just to get back to what he knows. See “Apocalypse Now”.

    • Max says:

      Skeptics who want to spread critical thinking want to know why they’re not reaching large segments of the population.

      • aaron says:

        I think noticing a large descrepancy in representation is always worth noting, whether its blacks in prisons, women senators, single fathers etc. Often these are endemic of greater problems of outreach, education, racism, sexism etc.

        This is not always the case, or the cause of the lack of a group or over representation of a group is so complex as to make it unadressable. When taken into account, and best efforts are made (such as this blog post) to consider what is happening, the potential benefits are quite great if simple methods can be found to address them (again, assuming there is something pinpointable) and there is little or no downside to the effort.

    • Travis Beaty says:

      It’s not that you should feel bad. It’s that you should feel like somethings not right. As Billy Joel sang “We didn’t start the fire.” We’ve inherited a world with sexism, but somebody’s got to put the fire out. If you’re a part of a movement that wants to affect the way people think, then you should feel uneasy when only men show up. The skeptic movement is doomed if it doesn’t get women on it’s side – they’re more than half the population!

  36. rustle says:

    There may be something to some of the ‘caregiver’ arguments. I’m a man, but when my kids were at the age when they started competitive sports, my participation at the shooting range, going on fishing trips, attendance at civic functions and playing flag football fell off dramatically. And social gatherings outside of school fundraisers was next to nil. When I saw people I knew at the grocery, the standard joke was “I only see you at school or at the store”. It almost never happened that I felt conflicted about missing out on anything because I was trailing around after my kids, either watching them play or coaching them, though.

    Now that all but one of them is out of the house, things have picked back up, but during football and basketball, its very much the same as it was when they were all home.

  37. Tim says:

    I disagree. I think the reason that there aren’t more women at these meetings is because they are all in the kitchen…where they belong.


  38. gwen says:

    As a minority female skeptic, when I walk into a skeptic event, the reaction I see most commonly is of incredulous ‘what the heck are YOU doing here’ or assumptions that I MUST be in the wrong place. I am NOT easily intimidated, but it doesn’t make for a very warm welcome. A suggestion: If you see a person at a skeptic gathering that seems out of place, approach them as if they belong there. This will accomplish two things, it s/he is in the wrong place, they will be more open to dialog about skepticism, and the other is that you will begin to see more minorities attending skeptical gatherings. When I attend meetings or picnics as the only brown face there, I am made to feel welcome (I am a naturally outgoing and friendly person)and have made friends, but in ‘skeptic in the pub’ venues, I cannot get anyone to engage with me, everyone assumes I am lost.

    • Fuller says:

      I find this very surprising. I’ve never been to a skepticism event where people were in any mentality other than ‘the more the merrier’. But if this attitude does in exist in some circles, it is cause for serious concern.

    • Tim says:

      Well that seems unprompted. Nobody said anything about minorities.

      With all due respect I do not need any lessons on racial etiquette and I resent the passive accusation of racism.

      People in this community are very tolerant and I think I speak for them when I say that they don’t appreciate being accused of bigotry. If people seem like they are not huge fans of human interaction then it probably has to do more with them seeing 1 too many episodes of Law and Order SVU than your epidermis.

      • LKL says:

        ‘Nobody said anything about minorities, so shut up.’


        For one thing, the name ‘Gwen’ is usually applied to women, so her comment is relevant even if we are just focusing on the gender divide. For another, the skeptical movement is just as imbalanced towards whites as it is towards men, and there’s a good chance the reasons are similar. Lastly, Gwen is both female *and* non-white, and should not be expected to chop her reactions up into nicely-labeled sections for the convenience of white people.

      • Vy says:

        I agree. Tim, let her speak. I understand that it’s not pleasant to feel vilified, but I think her intent was to give a voice to the underrepresented. That is definitely relevant to this post.

        And attempting to silence such a dialogue is quite unwelcoming to minorities.

      • Tim says:

        Excuse me, did I at any point say that she had no right to say something? That unprompted 1st Amendment BS is you attacking a position I did not take. I did not say that her rights were wrong, I said her wrongs were not right. Nobody said anything about race or minorities (seeing as women make up 51% of the population) and not only did she basically say that the problem with skeptics is that they are all a bunch of white racists, but she failed to address the topic of this thread in any way whatsoever.

        Race is not relevant to this post, this post is about why women are not showing up in greater numbers. Also, so I am not misunderstood any further, I welcome people to post here.

      • Vy says:

        You didn’t say that she didn’t have the right. But you did imply that since it was irrelevant, she shouldn’t talk about it. I still think it’s relevant. This post is indeed about the underrepresentation of women at skeptical events. Minorities are also underrepresented. I think you can talk about both in the same conversation.

        She also never said that skeptics are “a bunch of white racists.” I think you’re reading her words as more inflammatory than they really are, or were intended to be.

      • gwen says:

        Who said anything about racism??? There is an assumption that if you are black you are religious, and while this IS, unfortunately, for the most part true, some of us ARE atheist and skeptic. I really don’t think I am imagining the response I get when I show up at a ‘Skeptics at the pub’ event. I should not have to show up with someone white to have people realize I am where I intend to be, yet the first reaction I get when I show up, it that people politely assume I am in the wrong gathering. I am not looking for special treatment, I am just looking for people to withhold their first thought. It is a struggle to attend these meetings as they generally don’t have the same people each time and I got rather tired of trying to prove that I was not ‘lost’. I now just attend atheist and skeptic meetings where it is a lot quieter and I can walk up and introduce myself as a skeptic and feel a lot more welcome.

      • gwen says:

        I am not trying to ‘vilify’ anyone. I am just adding an explanation as to why you do not see more of a minority presence at a ‘Skeptics in the pub’ event. I have, for most of my life, lived where I was the only black person around,other than my immediate family, and I work in a profession where blacks only represent 5% of the total. Growing up in a primarily white environment doesn’t make it any easier for me as a black woman to attend a skeptics meeting in a pub.

      • Tim says:

        Okay, you said that people assume that if you are black then people assume you are religious. Who said that? What does that have to do with women not showing up in similar numbers as men? You ask who said anything about racism. You then proceed to talk about how people are reacting to you because they are judging you by your race. Excuse me if I take offense to that. I don’t like being made out to be the bad guy when I’ve done nothing wrong, and not just the bad guy, but as bad as bad can get. Calling somebody a racist, even passively, is the worst thing in our society that you can call somebody apart from being a child molester.

        People do not assume you are lost because you are black, they assume you are lost because they are polite. Or maybe they are racist, I have no idea, maybe you are right. I don’t know them, and it is wrong to assume things about people who you don’t know.

      • gwen says:

        Tim, you are just intent on labeling me a racist without addressing what I am saying. Tell me, exactly, how many minorities do you see at a ‘skeptics in the pub’ meetup. Have you EVER had a conversation with ONE of them to ask what it was like to attend their first few? Instead of straw man attacks, just think about it. I am trying to have a conversation and address what is being discussed here and you seem determined to answer with ad hominums.

      • LKL says:

        Tim, there’s a phrase in the martial arts: ‘uke is always right.’ If you don’t know what that means, it’s like this: Gwen isn’t telling you what you should do. She’s only telling you what it feels like to her. Instead of telling her she’s wrong in a knee-jerk response, maybe look around a little bit first and see what might be prompting her to feel that way; it’s probably not that she’s a reverse-racist, any more than it’s that skeptics hate people of color.

      • Tim says:

        I have known bigotry many times in my life, and it is an ugly, nasty thing. Now, you ask why I have not addressed any of the things you said. The reason is plain, because it has nothing to do with this thread for one. Second, I have no idea what happened to you when you went to Skeptic Pub meetings, I wasn’t there, I don’t drink, and I don’t know any of the people you met.

        Am I assuming you are a “reverse racist” as was stated by another? No, nothing like that. What I am objecting to is generalizations you are making and what you are implying about Skeptics and about people in general. You are doing it passively and perhaps unconsciously, but you are doing it nonetheless. I at no point accused you of racism, all I said was first that this is not a thread about racism, and second that a generalized lament about the ‘racial apprehension’ felt among Skeptics that you meet is a passive accusation of racism. I don’t appreciate it. I also don’t appreciate you then making the statement that I accused you of racism, something I did not do because like I said in my point accusing somebody of racism is almost the single most offensive thing you can call somebody.

        None of my points were ad hominem, they were objections to generalizations on your part on matters completely unrelated to this thread. The thread is about women in Skeptic movements. You spoke about how you think you are treated racially at Skeptic meetings. Clearly the two are no more related than if I were to bring up how I think people sometimes might treat me different due to congenital defect and speech impairment.

        To assume that people are making assumptions about you is to engage in the same behavior you are being critical of them for.

      • Cthandhs says:

        Tim’s response to your post is exactly what I have seen and experienced myself as a white female nerd in many male dominated sub-cultures. The mere suggestion of any racial or gender bias is abhorrent. People like Tim feel like they are being attacked for something they cannot see and didn’t do.

        To all the Tims out there: No one is saying you’ve done anything Bad. Groups of people do what they do unconsciously. Being conscious of your behavior can make things Better. Try not to be defensive. Try to be welcoming.

        Gwen, speaking out about your experiences is very courageous, especially because You can get this kind of super-defensive feedback. Thank you for talking about it. I will take your suggestion to heart.

      • Tim says:

        A legitimate analysis. You are right about me, but with all due respect to Gwen, and I mean that because I enjoy her other posts, I do not find it particularly courageous for her to passively speak about a possible unconscious stereotyping of her by white Skeptics and I think you give her undue praise.

        Now do I get a bit reactionary when I hear this sort comment being directed towards my “subculture,” yes I do, and rightfully so I think considering the stamp on my birth certificate is 20 years past the Voting Rights Act. The only bigotry I have had contact with in my life has been that directed against me in part one, because I was born with cleft lip and palate which leaves me with facial scars and a speech impairment, and two, from programs like affirmative action. So am I super-defensive, ummmmm…, yes, I’ll concede that. I do not think my complaint is illegitimate though and I stand by the point that this blog thread is not about racism (and that the original post by Gwen did not address the issue of women in Skeptic movements).

        As for my opinion on women in Skeptic movements, I don’t have any idea why there are not more women in Skeptic movements…and…I don’t really care either. Women are not excluded from Skeptic movements, men are not treating women as inferiors in Skeptic movements, and indeed I would be so bold as to say that women are welcomed into Skeptic movements. So why aren’t there more women in Skeptic movements? I don’t know, but I am pretty sure that it has nothing to do with anything any Skeptic groups are doing. Maybe Skeptic magazine should just advertise in more women’s magazines.

  39. McKnitty says:

    Just a theory, maybe more men are active in the skeptic movement because men feel the need to be “right” more strongly than women. (And that includes the need to prove others wrong.) It is just a personal observation that, although I am quite the skeptic, I rarely argue with my friends (or anyone) about it. I really don’t mean this as an insult to men or women. It is just a theory.

    • Cambias says:

      I think McKnitty has a key insight. Men are, in general, simply more comfortable taking an out-and-out antagonistic role. Skepticism is pure antagonism — there’s no room for “finding common ground” or “reaching a consensus.” It’s pure “I’m right and you’re a FOOL!” A great many women simply shy away from that kind of head-butting and chest-thumping.

      Which is not a bad thing. We NEED the buttheads willing to butt heads. The woo believers, crackpots, crooks, and frauds depend on people not wanting to seem rude, confrontational, or closed-minded. The classic cop-out “we don’t know everything” is a perfect example.

      So I don’t consider this a flaw, I think it’s a feature. The skeptics movement are the dork warriors. Dorks of science and rationality taking on the other dorks in a steel-cage match of competitive dorkiness.

      As to the lack of minorities . . . I don’t know. It does require one to define East and South Asians as non-“minorities.” We’re really talking about a shortage of black, Latin American, and American Indian skeptics. Reaching out to members of those communities does sound like a useful and worthwhile project.

    • Max says:

      maybe more men are active in the skeptic movement because men feel the need to be “right” more strongly than women

      Except in a relationship, where the woman is always right.

    • tmac57 says:


  40. MadScientist says:

    It may simply be the environment people grow up in. I still see an awful lot of Malibu Staceys out there and that includes supposedly university educated people. Even if the environment at home and at school encouraged Stacey, it is likely that the guys are still taught to go out there and learn to earn a living. Do we have information somewhere on gender, religion, and jobs (or lack of jobs)?

  41. Kenn says:

    Which of the following statements would be anathema:

    1. 1+1=2
    2. The earth is an orb, not a disk.
    3. There is nothing supernatural.
    4. Gender variations include intellect, temperament, interest, and aptitude.

    That skeptics cave in to political correctness discredits their claim to objectivity.

    • aaron says:

      Its not caving or political correctness by any means. If anything its marketing. While trying to insure the message/product is finding a maximum audience if groups can be identified where there is a potential weakness at least venturing to inquire why is a basic process.

    • LKL says:

      It’s not ‘caving to political correctness’ when someone challenges age-old claims about the supposed superiority of the majority that are presented uncritically, without peer-reviewed data to back them up.

      It is quite likely that there are gender differences in the *averages* of at least some of those things, but I have yet to see studies that successfully demonstrate them without cultural bias. For example, a widely-reported recent study that claimed that little girls ‘naturally’ like pink and little boys ‘naturally’ like blue failed to study any little girls or boys outside of the United States (where the pink and blue dichotomy are particularly entrenched).

  42. Cultural inertia. Skepticism began primarily male and like has attracted like.

  43. Mully410 says:

    Our Minneapolis Skeptics Meet-Up last night had 50% women.

  44. Max says:

    To attract women, stress usefulness, consumer protection, and especially protecting children.
    Look at the true believers. Men get obsessed with the paranormal, UFOs, bigfoot, and the Illuminati not because these things are relevant to their lives, but because it makes them feel smarter than everyone else. Women may believe in these things too, but they don’t care enough to waste time on it. Women care more about practical and spiritual things like horoscopes, psychics, and healing. And the anti-vaxers are downright hostile because they feel they’re protecting their children.

    • Max says:

      So if the early skeptical movement focused on weird but irrelevant things like UFOs, that may be one reason why it was male-dominated.

      • kabol says:

        makes sense to me. weird but irrelevant = things men like, right?

        max, please answer my question above.

  45. Jerry Schwarz says:

    I’ve been involved in the skeptical movement for a long time and I’ve long been bothered by a tendency for there to be many more men than woman. But I’ve been even more bothered by the lack of African Americans, Asians and other minorities. In particular Indians, Japanese, Chinese and other Asians are stereotypically techies. And yet there are hardly any in the skeptics movement.

    I’m not sure what explains it but my experience suggests that although it’s not universal skeptic gatherings tend to be unfriendly to almost all outsiders. I think we collectively need to examine our attitudes towards diversity.

    For the record I am a white male.

  46. tmac57 says:

    We need a large contingent of Skepchicks to weigh in on this. Susan? Rebecca? Naomi? Kitty?

  47. kabol says:

    how do you know the sex of anyone who is already posting?

    why are you begging for known female input?

    • kabol says:

      sorry, i meant to reply to the tmac57 We need a large contingent of Skepchicks to weigh in on this. Susan? Rebecca? Naomi? Kitty? post.

      • tmac57 says:

        By reading the names, and if that is ambiguous, by the content of the post. Appears to be a majority of men. I felt like in this instance, maybe a majority of female input might be helpful.

      • oldebabe says:

        Isn’t there some sort of supposition that “Susan, Rebecca, Naomi, Kitty” represent a “majority of female input” of female skeptics???

  48. LKL says:

    many women on the internet prefer to either remain undeclared or deliberately take male names because of the harassment they otherwise experience. Sympathetic men sometimes remain undeclared in support.

  49. Jack of Kent says:

    I find Oxbridge Lawyers under-represented at SITP meetings :-)