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.

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About Adam Lee

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