Women in Skepticism – Build it and they will come

Guest post by Rebecca O’Neill

Firstly some of you may be wondering what skepticism is. My general definition (and it does have many) is “the examination of extraordinary claims”. This could be anything from pills or potions that claim to cure chronic diseases with no medical data, contacting other-worldly spirits through mediums or ouija boards or the use of healing hands as a viable hospital treatment. Generally skeptics have an interest in science, technology and critical thinking. Before anyone calls me out about spelling it with a “K”, this is due to the fact that the movement largely began in North America and more importantly differentiates us from the more conspiratorial sceptics like the so-called Climate Sceptics. People who identify as skeptics would include Simon Singh, Sue Blackmore, Brain Cox and Dara O’Briain. Importantly skepticism isn’t the cynical rejection of seemingly impossible claims but rather the application of critical thinking to an assertion.

From learning about this movement through podcasts and blogs in 2009 I discovered groups called Skeptics in the Pub. These are informal groups dotted all across the world that meet to host talks and gatherings to allow for people with an interest in critical thinking to meet up and discuss relevant topics. So with no such group in existence in Dublin at the time I went about setting up Ireland’s first Skeptics in the Pub and we met for the first time two years ago this month. Since then we have meet nearly every month in the Lord Edward and I have also organised a few talks by speakers such as Richard Wiseman and one gig by a skeptical musician George Hrab.

I had been organising these meeting for about a year when I first came across the controversy of feminism in skepticism (some opinions on which can be found here, here and here). This is a long-standing and incredibly heated debate that centres on women and how they are treated within the skeptical community. In essence it focuses on why the skeptical movement is predominately male, and also incidentally Caucasian. For me, being in a gender minority is nothing new and I’ll expand on that a little now.

Maria and I had very similar experiences with gender biases growing up. Actually one could say nigh on identical seeing as we attended the same schools and pretty much the same classes for most of our 14 years of primary and post-primary education. However, never being the sporty type my frustrations come more into play with technology and what people would now happily label “geek culture”.

I grew up in a house where my family embraced science and the emerging concept of the home computer. From the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 through some of the more recognisable Pentium powered PCs I was always more interested in “Kicking ass and chewing gum” as Duke Nukem or reading my Star Trek Fact Files than I was in learning how to put on makeup or playing basketball. Being a female geek, nerd, dweeb or whatever you want to call it has never been easy for women and girls in general. Even to be gifted at maths, science and technology can inspire derision from your fellow class mates in school or being poorly facilitated by the subject choices available in many schools in this country. In my own experience the use of streaming of classes in secondary level meant that I never had the opportunity to undertake classes such as what was then called generically Technology (metal and wood work). I was equally frustrated by Computer Sciences, which in Junior Cycle comprised almost exclusively of typing classes and then in Senior Cycle the ECDL course. It was when I finally found myself in college that I discovered a way to combine my more creative side with the interest I always had in computers in Graphic Design, rendering my Leaving Cert honours in Biology and Chemistry a distant memory.

Skeptics in the Pub Cake

So when I first entered the skeptical movement the fact men were in the majority didn’t faze me, like it hadn’t with science fiction or gaming. I have however learned something very valuable from my experiences both as an organiser of such a group and as a larger global community. It’s that “If you build it they will come”. As a woman, being the organiser seems to have encouraged more women to attend and engage with our group – often coming to the pub by themselves and knowing to look for me by name. This has not just been my experience but seems to bare out across the world as regards encouraging women to attend such meetings. So basically it is going to be a slow process – getting equal amounts of men and women in any form of heavily scientific, technologic or critical thinking forum will take time and effort. The few women involved now have to wade in and plant their flag for more women to see and thus not feel like the odd one out. Of course what many women have learnt is that this is not always that welcome.

Highlighting your own minority status can be seen as attention seeking (by the opposite gender as well as your own) or as creating a problem where “there isn’t one”. To address the problem of gender balance and thus eradicate gender bias we must be prepared to acknowledge where it exists before we can move forward. As a slightly gothy, nerdy, red-headed MMORPG gamer being the odd one out is nothing new to me and if it encourages more people to get involved and become more interested and vocal on scientific issues in Ireland and beyond then I’m glad to put myself out there. The few of us that are confident enough to “own” our interests can help those who are only discovering their interests to feel more at home in these communities.

Rebecca O’Neill is the founder and organiser of the Dublin Skeptics in the Pub, podcaster, and general science enthusiast. Her natural habit range includes museums and galleries as well as the pub. You can find her on twitter @restlesscurator.

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