"Coming Out as an Atheist" Why a massive gender gap in the data?

As many of you know, A/N hosted my survey "Coming Out as an Atheist" last fall, and in the end it attracted a huge response (thanks in part to cross listings on other sites). A total of 8,204 "atheists" started with survey and over 9 of 10 completed the 51 questions.

Standard demographic information was collected. These data include age, occupation, country (and region within the US), race, level of education and partnered status. All of these data were interesting and useful, especially used in cross tabulation with some of the other opinion questions, but not surprising. See my other blog posts for the basic results.

The one demographic variable that stands out is gender. Of the 8,204 respondents, 74.4% indicated male. Why the massive gender difference in those taking the survey? As I begin to present these data in more formal, academic settings I will be pressed to defend this sample as meaningful and as representing the views, at least, of English speaking atheists with access to the Internet. I will be asked if indeed most of these atheists are male as indicated by the data. To this point I have no answer to this question, so I am turning to you reading this blog post (especially females!) for some conjecture.

Let’s look further into the data for some clues.

When comparing where the respondents are from, the gender gap is actually lowest with those from the US at 72.4% males. Here are the numbers for other “Western” nations/regions:

Canada 75.7%
UK 84.1%
Western Europe 84.6%
Australia 73.9%

I have bolded the numbers from Europe, and as you can see, the gender gap is even more dramatic. Why? Atheists from Europe, can you shed some light on this?

As I examine age relative to gender, the gap goes down somewhat at the youngest age category, 18-25, but is still prominent. Same results when I examine relative to region within the US; slightly more females proportionately in the Northeast and fewer in the Bible Belt, but the differences do not appear to be statistically significant.

As I look through the results from the one open ended question “Please provide an example of a social situation where you experienced stigmatization because you are an atheist.” of the 4,179 respondents who answered the question, “only” 70.1% were male; females that responded to the survey were ever so slightly more inclined to share their experiences. No major clue there.
So, where does that leave me in terms of answering the question about the gender gap in the survey results? My personal experience indicates no gap at all, and as many of my atheist friends are female as they are male.

Could this be related to the phenomena that I have been calling “social believers?” Is it possible that females are more likely than males to be social believers and to shy away from even “coming out” on an Internet site? Certainly in this age of Google, it is a risk to become a member of a site like A/N since anyone searching your name will see the affiliation. My data do show that females are a bit more impacted by the stigma associated with atheism (see the blog post where I detail gender differences) and thus one might conclude that fewer females would visit sites, like A/N where the survey could be found.

One question that perhaps Brother Richard, our august host, can answer is what is the gender ratio of A/N members. This answer would be interesting and may –or may not- show a gender gap within the population of “online atheists.”

NOTE: "As of right now, there are 8,840 members, 2,186 of whom classify themselves as female." So posted felch grogan below. This means that the A/N population is 75% male....almost exactly the same as the sample generated by the survey.

I will be looking into this question more deeply, but I thought it would be useful to present the question to A/N. Any thoughts –especially from females- will be appreciated!

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Comment by Little Name Atheist on July 13, 2009 at 9:08am
I'd love to see some actual sociological research. Maybe my experience is unusual, but it was always men trying to get me to attend church or some other religious institution/group.
Comment by Darrel Ray on July 13, 2009 at 9:01am
Tom: I have noticed on my YouTube channel, damon132, that the gender difference is 22% female, 78% male. This has maintained since I put the channel up in February of this year. Also, if you just go visit any church in any city in the US, you will see that about 60% of the people present are female. In addition, the people who are in the back acting as ushers or standing outside smoking during the service are almost always male. Being an usher allows one to be able to escape or be inattentive if they like. On average, males seem less engaged in the services and activities of churches, despite their presence. Ask a married male, who seems unengaged in the service why they are there, and the answer will often be, "Because my wife wants me to." If you were to do a survey of church goers and asked them, "Which partner seems most interested and engaged in church activities." The answer will tend towards the female member of the couple. I think there is a rich opportunity for sociological research in this area.
Comment by iam me on July 7, 2009 at 6:33pm
Hey Jimmo, fyi; the word 'nunneries', at least as far as 14th and 15th century England was concerned, actually referred to brothels.....

As for the question at hand; It is a curious coincidence for me, that I should happen upon this particular question at this time. I have recently, on more than one occasion, found myself in conversions about feminist atheist women abandoning their values for the church scene.

The four separate conversations were all about women in their late twenties or thirties and, all had recently birthed a child. The oddest situation was a women a MA in woman's studies who had just given birth to her third child.

Personally I would look into the accumulation of toxins in the human body over time and, how hormones interact with them..... Mercury amalgam fillings, sodium fluoride and excitotoxins, not to mention caffeine, alcohol, sugar and all the other poisons we have recently concentrated in our social ecologies..... But I too would agree with the "social believers" hypothesis. There have been a lot of studies confirming the social focus of the female regardless of culture, Georgetown Linguistics professor, Deborah Tannen's work leaps to mind.

Just my $0.02.

- me
Comment by Jim Mo. on June 29, 2009 at 8:27pm
I go with the "social believers" hypothesis.

Here are some thoughts in that direction:

Female convents (a.k.a. nunneries) in medieval Europe are considered by some as proto-feminist institutions. The framework of being "married to Christ" allowed women a place of greater autonomy and freedom than the general, male-attached, "secular" society. Thus, having an otherworldly authority to which they answered allowed some real world benefit. Why disgard this benefit for the sake if living as a second-class citizen with a philosophically clean conscience?

Likewise today, an otherworldly authority figure is a refuge for women who often find themselves lacking in self-confidence and skills (due to gender assignments, etc.) to thrive independently in a harsh and often male-directed society. Where a woman does not have a supportive and effective blood-kin clan to defend her interests, a church based group offers many a viable alternative.

Obviously, neither kin groups nor religious groups are always in the woman's best interests (witness several versions of Islam), but when faced with less agreeable alternatives, I imagine they may look attractive.

I think there are psychological factors as well. In the context of individuals being "less-favored" by genetic selection and de-selected through natural "selective reproduction" misfortune, atheistic materialism looks pretty bleak emotionally.
Comment by qıƃ ɟ ǝıɔɐɹʇ on June 22, 2009 at 4:41pm
It's not enough just to be online, one must also come across the survey. Although I've been online over two decades and atheist for over five decades I didn't encounter the survey.
Comment by SJBG on June 22, 2009 at 12:34pm
I'm a woman who participated in the survey. You might want to find out from where people learned of the survey. I found it through one of the science blogs (I forget which one), and I know there tends to be an overlap of scientists and atheists and that many science fields still tend to be male-dominated, so the readership may be as well and, hence, the people who were more likely to find your survey.
Comment by Nate on June 22, 2009 at 9:56am
I think the "massive gender gap in the data" reflects reality. In my real life experience, it's rare for a woman to embrace atheism. I've known some that call themselves agnostics, others identifying as deists, and many more "I just don't know what to think but there has to be something"s.

That makes the women that have the clarity of thought to arrive at atheism all the more worthy of respect and admiration.
Comment by Chrys Stevenson on June 22, 2009 at 9:09am
For what it's worth, Tom, I don't think there is any real bar to 'coming out' as an atheist in Australia whether one is a male or female. But our 2006 Census data - Religious Affiliation by Sex - provides a clue, perhaps. The figures are totals for Australia and suggest that many more men do identify as atheists than women.

Total Identified as Atheist: 31,299
Men: 61.64%
Women: 38.36%

Total Identified as 'No Religion' but supplied no further details: 3,643,811
Men: 53.22%
Women: 46.78%

May I suggest that you consult Census data in some other countries to see whether there is a similar preponderance of males in the 'Atheist' and 'No Religion' categories?

My hypothesis would be that 'atheism' is very much a political issue and that there may be some bias of men towards political activism. This is apparent in the parliaments of most countries where, I expect, the proportion of women is much lower than men. I expect it does have something to do with women (obviously with exceptions) simply having too many other things to deal with than to be political campaigners. I suspect that unless a woman is interested in 'atheism' as a political issue, she is more inclined just to be apathetic about religion rather than identify as an atheist, which brings you back to your 'social believers' thesis.
Comment by tom arcaro on June 22, 2009 at 6:07am
Thanks to all that have responded so far. From the above I think I can begin to surmise that, since women have/spend less time on line, that would account for some of the difference. But also from the above I can (thanks, Justin) make the tentative statement that women have more social capital to lose or gain by what those around them think, and therefore there may be a much higher proportion of social believers among women. Anecdotally, some of those who have commented on my social believers post infer as much. As a sociologist I think this makes good sense, but I still need some data to support it.

But how do you survey social believers!?
Comment by Justin Pearson Smith on June 22, 2009 at 4:00am
My own personal theory is that in terms of evolution women have in the past been the more submissive of the two sexes and with submission comes conformity. Atheism is a viewpoint typically held by a minority. There could be dozens of reasons why this tends to occur but I would imagine it comes from the fact that in the past men killed women who spoke out or criticised the dominant ideology. That's not to say that we don't have free thinking women because evidently we do have a lot of free thinking women in society. Even today women are more vulnerable than men and have more to lose IMHO. Again this is just my theory and I haven't researched it so I don't have figures to back it up.



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