The Secular Census and Women in Atheism

The American Secular Census is releasing statistics about the data they’ve gathered so far, and one of the first articles concerns women’s experiences in secular groups. There’s a lot here that’s worth commenting on.

First, the necessary caveats: The Secular Census isn’t a rigorous survey with random sampling of the population, but is open to anyone who wants to sign up and answer the questions, so there’s an element of self-selection which could have influenced the results. On the other hand, the demographics do correspond with other studies: for instance, the respondents so far are about 58% male and 42% female, which is nearly identical to the gender ratio of American “nones” found in the 2008 ARIS. (See also Secular Woman’s report on the gender composition of secular organizations’ boards.)

So far, this is expected: the gender imbalance in atheism is a well-known phenomenon. But drilling down into the data, there are a few surprises. For instance, although the gender imbalance persists across age and income groups, among students specifically, it vanishes, becoming a near-even split. (This is a very good sign if, as I suspect, the future leadership of the secular movement will come in large part from this demographic.) Women also participate at rates essentially equal to men among Hispanics. To my surprise, in the category of black or African-American atheists, women are more numerous than men, almost the reverse of the ratio at large, 60% to 38%. I don’t know how to explain that result or whether it’s a data artifact. (It would help if the Secular Census would release absolute numbers as well as percentages.)

The question is what can explain the persistent gender disparity among atheists at large, or in other words, why don’t women participate in the atheist movement at the same rate as men? The Secular Census has some answers here as well.

Among respondents who used to consider themselves part of the secular movement but no longer do, or those who’ve heard of it but have never explored further, women outnumber men. And among these uninvolved respondents, a full 70% of the women, versus only 30% of the men, cite “Bad experience with group, person, or event” as the reason for their lack of engagement.

Regardless of gender, all respondents who are or have been involved in the secular movement are asked: Have you ever felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement? Women outnumber men 62%/34% in responding “Yes.” It is worth noting that women do not outnumber men when asked the same question about religious organizations with which they’ve been associated.

These numbers paint a clear picture. The reason men outnumber women in the secular movement isn’t because of some nebulous biological imperative or because women are just incidentally uninterested in atheism or skepticism: it’s because too many women have had bad experiences. Some have been chased away or have chosen to depart rather than put up with harassment, unwelcome advances or other bad behavior. Others, we can safely say, have heard these stories second-hand and have chosen not to get involved in the first place.

As I said, since this isn’t a fully randomized survey, these numbers shouldn’t be taken as definitive. But it would be equally foolish to deny that these results mean anything at all, especially since they cohere so well with the reported experiences of many atheist women. This is a problem that can be fixed, and it’s a problem we need to fix.

Some of the fixes are easy – for instance, uninvolved women also cite lack of childcare as a primary reason for not attending atheist meetups and conventions. This is something we’re already making progress on, with groups like Camp Quest starting to provide childcare at some large conferences. But creating a more welcoming environment overall, with fewer bad apples and less tolerance of casual sexism, is a much harder problem, and solving it is a matter of changing the culture within the secular community. The Secular Census is additional corroborating evidence that this is something we have to work on.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Peter Ferguson

    I agree that it would be foolish to disregard these results because it isn’t the most scientific of surveys, but the problem is the survey doesn’t state exactly what the bad experiences were. So how do we fix a problem when we still don’t know what it is. You say it is harassment and unwanted advances but nowhere in the survey does it say this. The survey does says that only women responded to the “unwanted sexual advances” answer, but that doesn’t state how many that is, it could 1 or thousands. We simply need more precise data on the reasons why.

  • Steve Bowen

    Ah! Data… That should test the critical thinking skills in the slymepit.

  • Figs

    Just to head off some of the stupider trolling:

    I thought atheism was about lack of belief in gods, not gender issues!

    This is about the secular movement, thanks.

    These women are just exaggerating or plain making up their bad experiences to get attention, or are overly sensitive to things that aren’t real problems.

    People speaking from a place of privilege quite often don’t have the lenses through which to see how problematic some of their behavior (which they see as totally innocent) can really be. The response isn’t to reflexively defend yourself by saying none of your behavior has been objectionable, but to try to step outside of yourself and see how your behavior may have come across to someone who wasn’t you.

    Men are represented more than women in atheism because men are inherently more reasonable than women. Evolution or something.

    Let the grown-ups talk, thanks.

  • Elizabeth

    I didn’t participate in the survey, but I can confirm that for me, I’m *very* leery about participating in some activities because of the horrible things that people like Ophelia Benson have experienced…I am not brave like her – I can’t stand the thought of experiencing even a fraction of what she and others have gone through. I’d rather not put myself in a place where I’m afraid something might happen and be all paranoid.
    I had once considered doing my own blog or something like that, but if I got even one rape/murder/kill posts from some nutty troll I’d be out in a flash.

  • GCT

    @Peter Ferguson,

    So how do we fix a problem when we still don’t know what it is.

    Well, we start by fixing the problems that we know exist and creating more welcoming spaces in general.

  • JRG

    I didn’t participate in this survey, but as a female atheist, I can speak to my own experience with my local group of atheists that lead me to stop going.
    1. The demographic was mostly single 20-40 year old males and the meetings were primarily held in bars. I don’t have a problem with bars per se, but it’s expensive, loud and provides a “date” context that was annoying.
    2. The group very rapidly (within a year) devolved into factions each with its own agenda and definitions for inclusion / exclusion. (Are agnostics allowed? Do humanists count? We should be organizing protests! No, we should be pamphlet-bombing the city).
    3. There were several families in the group, who almost never attended. When I tentatively ventured that my husband and I were interested in monthly picnic / potlucks, games, activities, etc. to include atheist families (to the end of raising my children to understand that we are not the only atheists on the planet). I was ignored by most of the group (which is fine if family inclusion is NOT the goal of the group, I understand that). However, a few members, in choice, colorful language, suggested that I go join a church if I wanted a “faith” community.
    I stopped attending, primarily because it was made clear to me that the group was less interested in establishing a community of like-minded skeptics and more about hanging out in bars and listening to themselves squawk about Dawkins.

  • Wowbagger

    The anti-feminists will handwave this away, citing ‘skepticism’ of the data, the methods, the relevance – they’re basically creationists in that sense.

    And no doubt a few of them will make videos of themselves screaming at the camera and cursing the names of prominent feminist bloggers as they loudly deny their behaviour could have anything to do with discouraging people from getting involved.

  • Magda

    What things do religious setting provide for women? What do women really go to church for? How do churches provide socialization opportunities where people with children and responsibility for children feel as though they are getting something of value? If you have to accept a little religious nonsense to get that experience you are likely to tolerate it. Dump the kids in 40 minute Sunday school class and talk to adults for a while. If secular groups can’t think of a way to be inclusive of people who’s interests naturally revolve more around family and children, secular groups will continue to attract fewer women. It’s not rocket science guys.

  • Adam Lee

    @Peter Ferguson:

    So how do we fix a problem when we still don’t know what it is.

    Good question. Here’s my proposal, which I hope won’t be thought too obvious: Ask women why they feel unwelcome in the secular community and what they’d like us to do to fix that, and then listen to what they say and act on it. Several people have commented just in this thread with suggestions; many other skeptic and atheist women have spoken out elsewhere about changes they’d like to see happen in our community. I’m sure you can find their proposals without too much difficulty.

  • Rieux

    Count me as one non-woman who would react very positively to the provision of child care at my local atheist group’s events. Caring for my new kid (who is now 6.5 months old and unspeakably adorable) has taken a massive toll on the time and energy I have to participate in atheist stuff.

    I’m also very much in favor of the anti-harassment efforts Adam and numerous other community leaders have spoken out in favor of, but that should go without saying. Doesn’t, but should.

  • Wowbagger

    Mary Ellen Sikes, who is responsible for the survey, has commented on the Pharyngula post on the topic – and goes into quite a lot of detail about the methodology. Definitely worth reading.

  • J. James

    Good to see that the age gap is moving in the right direction. Millenials are the future, and the future is bright. They’re much more tolerant, secular, progressive and inclusive than previous generations.

  • Kate Lovelady

    Hi. I lead the Ethical Society of St. Louis, which is a humanist congregation with programs for children and youth and child care for infants. We have if anything more women than men involved and in leadership in our group. I can’t say for sure it’s because of our family programs, but I’m sure it’s a big part.

  • Peter Ferguson

    “Ask women why they feel unwelcome in the secular community and what they’d like us to do to fix that, and then listen to what they say and act on it”

    Agreed. The survey says 70% of women who do not participate in the secular community were turned away because of a “bad experience with group, person or event”. This is a worrying statistic, especially when compared to just 30% of men. But it is a category that is extremely broad. There needs to be more specifics, which there are none in this survey. And that is the point of my original comment, we need to know more so can act appropriately.

  • anon101

    There are actually reason conceivable for these numbers:
    1) Skeptical women tend to be, well, more skeptical. This means they are going to recognize discrimination more easily.
    2) Religions tend to be sexist thus women with a low tolerance towards discrimination are more likely to leave a religion. Thus the group of secular women is self-selected to be less tolerant towards sexism.
    3) Within religion different treatment of men and women is part of the doctrine. Thus religious women are more likely to accept to be treated differently.