DJ Grothe has done some great things and he’s taken the James Randi Educational Foundation a long way; he’s made an important mark and we should all appreciate him and his prior efforts. Hell, we should create an award named after him and give it to people every year. Thank you DJ Grothe for all you’ve done for the skeptic movement.
But now it is, I suggest, time to move on. Over the last several months there has been an increasing realization that the Skeptics Movement has fallen behind much of the rest of thoughtful and progressive society in the area of women, anti-sexism, and feminism. As a new movement (new in comparison to, say, This or That Church, or Academia or whatever) it is actually fairly alarming to see things like Skepchick and the Women in Secularism conference not only form but also thrive and be considered vitally important. A modern movement should not need to counter all, or even any, levels of sexism and misogyny from within. Those problems shouldn’t have been there to begin with. But, as it turns out, large areas of the Skeptics movement are very unfriendly to women, and there is an overall anti-women undercurrent ranging from a simple lack of active feminism, which is bad enough, to a vocal denial that there is a problem, to downright intentional misogyny. And, against this backdrop, DJ Grothe has positioned himself, explicitly, right in the middle, which is exactly where a leader in this movement at this time should not be.
DJ has hit the Intertubes to make comments (See this, this, and this.) which essentially ask people to stop talking about women’s discomfort at skeptics meetings, which he refers to as bad messaging. He is alarmed, we are told, that the number of female participants in TAM seems to has dropped from about 40% to below 20%, based on current registration numbers, and that this is because various Skepchick bloggers, and those people over at Free Thought Blogs, and Ashley Miller, and all those other people have been blogging about the status of women in skepticism. DJ’s centerpiece…his conference, his baby, his brainchild…is apparently being shunned by women, and he is blaming those who are concerned about, and actively engaged in, the problem of sexism and misogyny in the Skeptics movement. (see also this post by PZ Myers at Pharyngula and comments therein: DJ, please fix this genuine problem and this older piece by Skeptifem, “when men rule feminism.)
The truth is that TAM was always a male oriented event, with mainly male speakers and panelists, and that pressure was applied to TAM to increase the number of women represented on the roster. That pressure worked and more women were added, and diversity was otherwise increased. But people may see some of the institutional stalwarts, both meetings like TAM and leaders like DJ Grothe, as still being somewhat out of touch with this problem. Now, it is quite possible, even likely, that the reduction in numbers of women at TAM is a result of a bit of random fluctuation combined with bleed-off from the Women in Secularism conference. It could be that at this critical moment in the Skeptics movement, TAM shoulda, coulda, but failedta make this the Year of the Women at TAM, instead of just having a Diversity panel or something. It is hard to say why the numbers of women signing up for TAM has dropped so abysmally, and it is unfair to attempt serious armchair quarterbacking about what TAM should or should not do.
(Added: This post is not about TAM, mainly. It is mainly about reactions to people speaking out to make conferences like TAM and the sketpics movement in general more women friendly; the specific reaction to suggest that speaking out in this manner is itself making it less women friendly is tantamount to victim blaming and shows a serious lack of understanding of the most important transition happening now in the Skeptics movement. Having said that, there is an issue with TAM itself closely connected to this conversation: As part of the broader conversation, DJ Grothe has made the comment that there has never been any serious harassment at TAM. Ashley Miller begs to differ.)
But I can tell you one thing with perfect certainty1: The skeptics movement is currently divided into two very distinct parts: 1) The part that wants women to be not only comfortable, but to lead, and this includes the majority of people in the movement, and 2) The part that wants the old timey conferences to retain their old timey charm as minor meat markets for nerds, that wants to keep its old white guy idols and icons, and that wants to move such marginal and suspicious entities as the Mens Rights Movement to the forefront, and this includes a minority of people in the movement. In his recent remarks about how women are fleeing TAM because of Rebecca Watson, the Skepchicks, and various anti-misogyny bloggers and commenters poisoning the water, DJ Grothe does not necessarily cast his lot with the latter, but he clearly disassociates himself with the former. He can not position himself outside the mainstream of the skeptics movement and continue to lead.
Thus, my suggestion. DJ, make the transfer of power smooth and easy. Make it a positive thing. Make it work for Skepticism and TAM. Later, we’ll make a nice award and name if after you. Either way. You get to chose now what sort of thing the award will be given for!
1Added note: On further consideration, I can’t say this with perfect certainty. Too many individuals (all priv-o-guys as far as I can tell) have insisted that I can’t say this. They object to the idea of women in leadership roles. I can’t tell if they have simply over-interpreted my statement to mean that all the men should be slaughtered, or a least, neutered, and replaced with with big giant mace-wielding women from the island of Lesbos, or if they think of themselves as men with leadership roles and don’t want to share. So yes, maybe there is more sexism in the less sexist part of the community than I thought. Well, I knew the sexism was there, but I thought there was more of an overt embrace of the idea of reducing sexism across most of the Skeptics movement. But, alas, in the absence of evidence it is true that we can not assume that.