New survey with an additional focus on the gender disparity in the atheist community



Prelude to a Major Survey
by Dr. Tom Arcaro & Emily Wappes 
It is clear to many members of the atheist internet blogosphere that there is a noticeable gender disparity among participants in atheist activities (fora, blogs, comments, readership) online.  Two quick examples will illustrate. As of 6 May 2011 only 27% of Atheist Nexus (A|N) membership is female. Similarly, in a 2008 online survey hosted by A|N, as well as several popular atheist blogs, that focused on the stigmas related to identifying as an atheist, out of 8200 respondents only 25% were female. There are also indications that this discrepancy is continued offline as well, in self-identification on surveys and in participation in atheist community groups. There is a similar disproportion in popular published material though mainstream visibility of women in outspoken atheist positions is gaining headway. Still, these areas are dominated by men and the demographic is only slowly and recently changing.

This is not to say that women are not involved in high positions of leadership within the atheist community, nor that their input is disregarded. Women like Margaret Downey, President of the Freethought Society, Lori Lipman Brown, the founding director of the SCA, Lyz Lidell in the SSA, Debbie Goddard representing both the CFI and African Americans for Humanism, Susan Jacoby representing CFI, and so many others speak to, write about, educate and organize atheists across North America and around the globe. There are numerous female atheist bloggers, authors, and thinkers all with as much to say, if not more, than their male counterparts. Yet the truth remains that the population of today's New Atheist community remains heavily skewed toward the male, many places in ratios hovering near 3:1.

This topic has clearly been on the minds of many. Many of note in the blogosphere have considered this issue in lengthy discussion. On the A/N site that are numerous discussion threads touching on the gender disparity. Much of this buzz was initiated by a Skepchick podcast about sexism and sexist remarks made at The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM), a conference for skeptics hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation, in 2009. Two years later and this discussion is still hitting chords, even throughout the scandal of the so-called ‘Elevatorgate’ this summer.

Dr. Arcaro has previously administered a survey on atheism and the stigmas related to it.   (See Skeptic Magazine, Volume 15 Number 4  for “The Stigma of being an Atheist.”) We are looking to further that data and propose administering an online survey, the point of which will be to generate useful data related to gender and atheism, and that these data can both contribute to more empirically based discussions about this topic and provide information to support initiatives (such as modifications in policy) that would address the underlying issues related to the gender disparity in the atheist community. The various discussions already taking place in the blogosphere around this topic are are both interesting and productive. What could make that discussion even more successful would be having and using empirical data to help support the integration of more women (especially women of color, former adherents to non-Abrahamic faiths, etc.) into the New Atheist movement. It is not enough to hope that time will even up the ratios, they must be actively addressed; we will all benefit.

We have a general idea of what female (especially USA) atheists look like right now from Dr. Arcaro’s 2008 survey data: they tend to be highly educated (92.5% have at least ‘Some College’), liberal (88.7%), white (88.2%), under 35 (63.8%), and from backgrounds of low religious orthodoxy (62% claimed little to no orthodoxy in their religious backgrounds). So how might we provide welcoming environments not only for these women (who are currently heavily outnumbered), but also for the women of more diverse demographics who may face different struggles coming out as atheists? Many have noted that this issue is not only about being more inclusive to women, but also about being more inclusive to all diversity. New Atheism, as it stands in opposition to religious oppression, does not need exclusion or discrimination or hierarchy. It needs brothers, it needs sisters, it needs a supportive and open community.

Here’s how you can help us figure out how. We are in the beginning stages of creating another survey that can reach an international population of atheists online. We have in mind a few vague categories for questions to be written: coming-out, home life and relationships, community and support, stigma and prejudice. We are looking to crowd-source relevant topics that are important to members of atheist communities on which to base our questionnaire. Our question to you then becomes this: what questions need to be asked of a large, trans-national population in order to help us get at the root of this issue? What do women need from New Atheist communities? What keeps women who don’t believe in deities from identifying as atheist?

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Comment by Maruli Marulaki on October 25, 2011 at 2:48pm

It would be very interesting to include in a survey, what kind of and how much woo-woo belief people can adher to and still define themselves as atheists, and if there is a gender difference. Some weird discussion about taoism made me suggest a kind of atheism self-assessment questionnaire.

Comment by sehkmet on October 24, 2011 at 12:43pm
Where and who did you survey to reach your conclusions about women atheists?
Comment by Rachel on September 11, 2011 at 8:14am

Hi Tom! So happy to hear you are conducting a second survey to delve into the gender gap in the movement. Here are a few of my thoughts.

  • Women are often seen as the biggest victims of religion. This is especially true for Muslim women, but also true for other women as well (the young brides in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints come to mind). The atheist movement often talks about this victimization (with good reason, of course), but it may make the movement less welcoming to women who are exploring non-theism. This is not a fully articulated thought, but I wanted to raise it because I think it would be worth exploring it a bit.
  • If you are going to include a “homelife and relationships” category you should also include “worklife”. Most women have home and work lives and it’s just weird to mention one and not the other. I know you asked about work in your previous survey, but I think it is worth asking again in this new context. Worklife/homelife balance may be an issue related to women’s participation.
Looking forward to seeing this new survey go live!

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